The Air Force Proves Modern Software Development Isn’t Just for the Private Sector

August 27, 2018 Jeff Kelly

National defense agencies and the armed forces face many of the same challenges the private sector does when it comes using software to improve outcomes. Of course, there isn’t a revenue goal, or a discussion of ROI. But there’s a strong desire to use software to improve mission objectives. And when threats evolve quickly, operational agility is paramount.

Many of these organizations, like enterprises of all stripes, are saddled with slow, legacy software development practices. Defense agencies and the armed forces have the added burden of complex, lengthy rules that dictate how new code  pushed to production, a processed dubbed “Authority to Operate.”

The result is that it takes multiple years for new software projects to reach production. It’s hard for defense agencies and the armed forces to apply innovative software-based solutions to rapidly changing conditions on the ground. By the time software makes it to the battlefield, the problem it was designed to solve is often no longer a problem or, worse, has escalated so much that the new software is inadequate at addressing it.

“The current acquisition process includes operational analysis of the problem and a capture (or distillation) of requirements,” writes Bob Strini, a retired USAF fighter pilot and former Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and Air Combat Command (ACC) staff officer, and Keith Strini, the Federal Practice Lead for Pivotal, in a new white paper. “Extensive collaboration with a providing agency follows, revolving around long-term symmetrical threats. When an asymmetric threat occurs, the process cannot react quickly enough. An acceptable operational solution takes too long to deliver.”

Thankfully, the situation is improving. The authors deliver an authoritative description in a new whitepaper: How Improved Measures Optimize Mission Effectiveness, available now for free download. Defense agencies and the armed forces must transition from a linear, Big Design Up Front approach to software development to “warfighter centric design”, in which small, cross-functional teams develop and deliver new functionality in frequent, iterative batches. This enables new, software-based warfighting capabilities to be deployed and used when they can make the biggest impact.        

Figure 1. Pivotal Modernization of Legacy System of System Enterprise

Of course, there are some important differences between how the private sector and defense agencies and the armed forces apply modern software development. In both cases, success is based on outcomes. In the private sector, success is measured based on well-known criteria, such as increased revenue and customer retention. But revenue and customer-based metrics don’t apply to the defense sphere.

“Translating value in national defense space is often awkward and objectively difficult. The objectives aren’t centered around revenue or return on investment (ROI) like in the private sector. Instead, discussions focus in and around the mission space and overall force effectiveness,” write the authors. “Often times there is a misconception that in order to seize on the advantages of software delivery innovations as commercial entities do, that somehow military capability development needs to conform to commercial ideas of feature prioritization.”

In fact, what’s needed are a new set of outcomes and metrics tailored specifically for the world of defense. The paper outlines what the authors call a “mission-driven mindset” and three criteria for evaluating mission effectiveness. They use a recent Pivotal engagement with the United States Air Force and its Air Operations Center Weapons System, or AOC WS, as an example of modern thinking in practice.

The AOC WS is responsible for refueling aircraft mid-flight around the world. Teams used a physical whiteboard to coordinate an incredibly complex process. With Pivotal’s help, the AOC WS was able to design and deliver a new, software-based solution in a matter of months, a significant improvement over the organization’s typical three to five year software delivery timeline. The AOC WS used the following three metrics, developed with Pivotal, to measure mission effectiveness (direct quotes from the white paper):

  1. First order improvements (Mission Effectiveness Improvements) ... relate to attributes of a given mission. These directly impact the efficiencies of attributes critical to mission effectiveness and are typically stated by the warfighter (customer).

  2. Second order improvements (Operational Usability Improvements) ... are items that aren’t necessarily critical to mission effectiveness but affect aspects of operations the warfighter cares about. They can be stated by the warfighter or suggested by the developer during collaboration.

  3. Third order improvements (Programmatic Improvements) ... are often fiscal or program sustainment improvements that benefit taxpayers or the program office.

“The end result: a greater effective operational agility to outpace the speed of evolving threats,” write the authors. “Further, mission capability is enhanced without decreasing mission effectiveness. Short software release cycles eventually satisfy the operator defined measures of suitability. Rapid feature delivery continues until full operational capability, as defined by the warfighter, is achieved.”        

The entire paper is well worth reading. It explains in detail the methodology behind the three “ordered effects” and how to apply them. The paper also includes a section specifically for technical teams, describing how to use modern software development, most notably rapid software delivery, in conjunction with these new metrics to improve mission effectiveness and drive better outcomes.

About the Author

Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly is a Director of Partner Marketing at Pivotal Software. Prior to joining Pivotal, Jeff was the lead industry analyst covering Big Data analytics at Wikibon. Before that, Jeff covered enterprise software as a reporter and editor at TechTarget. He received his B.A. in American studies from Providence College and his M.A. in journalism from Northeastern University.

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