Roper: Fixing Software Development Necessary For Future Success

Will Roper, the Air Force's new head of acquisition, said fixing the way the service acquires software is one of his biggest challenges. DOD photo.

The Air Force’s new acquisition chief said one of his biggest challenges is figuring out a faster way to acquire software.

The Defense Department’s decades-old acquisition system, which was created to build things like aircraft and submarines, simply doesn’t work for software, because by the time the service actually takes ownership of the software it’s no longer relevant, Will Roper told reporters on Friday. He said the Air Force must move toward agile software development, where “rapid drops happen all the time” and “the bugging is automatic.”

DOD is “not accustomed to having deliverables on a weekly or monthly basis,” but he said, “software will be the delineator.”

Eric Schmidt, the head of DOD’s Defense Innovation Board, told members of the House Armed Services Committee recently that the way DOD acquires software is “crazy.” Schmidt said if you had asked developers in 2001 to create a smart phone for 2018, they would not have been able to do it because the technology simply didn’t exist. Software, if done right, said both Schmidt and Roper, should be continuous.

“The way you really want to do it is you start it iteratively and you learn from your mistakes and so forth,” said Schmidt. “That is called ‘agile development.’ It’s essentially impossible to do because of the way the rules are set.”

Roper, who has served as the service’s acquisition chief for less than two months, previously led the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office. As he was “learning Air Force,” he said he noticed that “almost all” of the programs that were over cost and over scheduled also happened to be “software intensive programs.”

He acknowledged the F-35 strike fighter program is often seen as the poster child for such a troubled program, but said concerns over long-term sustainment costs and resources are not “insurmountable.” However, “the challenge is significant.”

Fixing how the department does software development, which also is a key part of the F-35 Block 4 upgrade, will go a long way in solving those problems.

“A lot of the sustainment challenges would be solved if you could solve the software problems,” said Roper. “It’s almost like if you solve this one thing, the dominoes would fall over and the world would be better.”