The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) annual survey of forty-two major weapons programs found that only 6 met private-sector standards for software updates every six weeks (at most). Only two extant programs met a six-month timeline. Other update cycles ranged from three months to over a year. In a recent report by Breaking Defense, experts agreed that the Defense Department should adopt agile methodology, but disagreed on how to measure its success, and the next steps to take.
The three programs that achieved commercial-speed innovation cycles were the Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), the Navy’s Joint Precision Approach & Landing System (JPALS), and the Air Force’s Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) (though HCSW has since been cancelled). These programs delivered software to end-users every two to three weeks. Promisingly, the report also showed that other programs are adapting much faster than typical DoD speeds.
Military systems are much more complex than software in other sectors, and the stakes are higher for ensuring that all features and updates keep the technology running smoothly. The commercial marketplace allows a greater margin of error – updates can roll out quickly, but will likely require correction soon after. While frequent updates can boost functionality, they can also wreak havoc if the update contains a bug or other issues, especially in military systems.
Additionally, the DoD tends to work on a slower timeline due to budgets that are set years in advance, and laws and regulations that make efficient development, production, and testing difficult. Hardware can also take years to develop. Additionally, poor testing practices can slow the process even further. Traditional weapons programs often begin testing after completing design and development. Starting tests at such a late stage can be time-consuming and costly. Though there is disagreement, some argue that applying the agile method would be incredibly beneficial to these programs.
David Berteau, former Pentagon official and current head of the Professional Services Council, suggests that even if agile methodology does not make sense for the DoD’s high-profile weapons programs, at the very least it should be applied to day-to-day processes, systems, logistics, and support. Andrew Hunter, head of defense industrial studies at CSIS, a Washington thinktank, recommends setting a two-to-six month benchmark for updates on programs that necessitate adaptability.