JUST IN: Software, Workforce Critical Concerns for Service Leaders
Defense Dept. photo
With the services racing to modernize and pivot to deter peer competitors in the Pacific region, two needs cut across efforts to field new platforms and systems: building and retaining the workforce and acquiring the right software, said service leaders.
The Army is emphasizing long-range fires and air and missile defense, the Navy is building new ships, submarines, and unmanned vessels and the Air Force is focused on several modernization priorities including next generation fighters, tankers and collaborative combat aircraft. All the programs and platforms require software and the ability to regularly refresh technology.
“The way we structure programs today is to allow us to have the opportunity to do continuous [research and development], continuous tech insertion and competition within the existing program of record to be able to find new solutions for integrated components into the overall system,” said Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference Aug. 29.
“That's how we're going to get after improved interceptors, how we're going to incorporate directed energy, for example, and other solutions” to counter unmanned aircraft systems, he added.
“Every single weapon system that we're developing has complex software baselines,” he said. “We are now understanding that absolutely everything we buy has to have some understanding of how to buy software in a much more sophisticated way than the department has done in the past.”
Often an Army command or office wants to buy a piece of commercial software and customize it for unique requirement, he said. “A lot of people just don't understand how much that's going to cost the government, how much risk that's going to introduce into the effort, and ultimately why maybe it would be better to kind of dial back some of those aspirations and figure out how to incrementally get to where you want to go and maybe change some of your business processes,” he said.
“Understanding what software risks are and how to buy it better is an area we're really focusing on in the Army,” he added.
“I think part of that is also going to go along with recognizing that we need to structure our acquisition programs differently than the way we've done in the past,” Camarillo said.
“We started doing that, for example, with a robotic combat vehicle, where we took the hardware into one program line, and we're separating the software baseline into a different effort,” he said. That is taking advantage of the software acquisition pathway to develop more iteratively, he said. “We're no longer going to continue to sustain software, like if it was, you know, a tank or helicopter. We know that there has to be continuous R&D, all of this will come together to hopefully make us a much better customer.”
Erik Raven, undersecretary of the Navy, said: “I think when it comes to support for Navy enterprise needs for software, I think the Navy has really started to break some rules in trying to leverage the best of the commercial industry.”
For example, the service worked with Microsoft to “advance our flank-speed email and enterprise software initiative by leaps and bounds. And that has led the way into zero trust environments, where it's not only solving the immediate issue of how we do our business every day but helping to improve cybersecurity efforts and leading the way into other broader expansion of that,” he said.
“We are looking at leveraging innovative contracting mechanisms … the key that we see is to make sure that we go in with very clear requirements and set up a competitive environment,” he added.
Software has been the source of delays in many of the service’s major acquisition programs, he said.
“There's going to be a very clear delineation of contracting responsibilities for industry to perform, not only on the provision of hardware, but software as well,” he said. “So, if industry is behind on something, we're going to be calling and asking questions, what is the issue? How can we get after it? And how can we solve this problem together?
“So, from the small to the big software, it's critical to all Navy and Marine Corps capabilities. And we are absolutely committed to doing better in this area,” he said.
Kristyn Jones, performing the duties of the undersecretary of the Air Force, said the service is behind the others in modernizing its business systems and getting the right controls into its systems, and that requires help from industry.
In addition, the Air Force is prioritizing cybersecurity and zero trust architecture, she added.
“But the other thing that we're seeing is on most of our programs, software is a key component, no matter what it is,” she added. “One of the things that we're doing is using digital engineering as an example. This is the case with our B-21 or [Next-Generation Air Dominance] programs. And specifically, Sentinel is one that we need to use those types of tools to help to have risk reduction for these complex efforts.” Sentinel is the service's next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile.
Related to getting software right is recruiting, retaining and upskilling the right people, all three panelists said.
“We spent a significant amount of time looking at our recruiting,” Jones said. “The Space Force is on track to meet our targets; the Air Force is a little bit behind. So, we've put a number of initiatives in place to expand our reach. And specifically, to address for those who have a propensity to serve, what are some of the barriers that are preventing them from coming in?
“And what are some of these incentives that we can provide, such as our enlisted college repayment program, so that we can attract more people into the workforce,” she said. “On the civilian side, some things that I think we need to do a better job is leveraging the flexibilities and incentives that we have, and one in particular is with our cyber workforce.”
The service hasn’t been using its flexibilities consistently, she said, and that will be an area of focus moving forward.
“So, making sure that we're tracking how well we're using those capabilities, so that we can attract the cyber workforce that we need,” she continued. “We're also doing a number of things to upskill our workforce, such as our digital university and other training programs.”
The Air Force is also looking at pathways similar to warrant officers in the other services, she said. “We're not using that one officer title, but more of a specialist program, where when you're very interested in a technology track that you can stay in that track without some of the requirements for command positions that our normal activities require.”
The Space Force has a legislative proposal to help with retention that would provide flexibility to “move between full time and part time employment and be able to keep the best of our workforce as they go through the different cycles of their life,” she said.
Raven said the key to attracting uniformed and civilian talent is making sure people understand the value of service.
“Everybody who has worked for, with and alongside the federal government really needs to tell the story of what it means to be involved in national service,” he said. “The biggest attraction that I think we can offer the workforce is the sense of being involved in something larger than yourself.”
Raven noted that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has some initiatives in the works to target key areas where talent is needed “and being able to plug in not only OSD’s needs, but service needs, to get to that talent.”
Camarillo said the Army is also working on upskilling its workforce, particularly in areas relating to software.
“And providing a little bit of a teaser … there is something we're working on now to try to help bring in some expertise into the Army to make sure that we can provide that expertise at the right time for those organizations as we're doing some of these efforts,” he said.