The Air Force needs more in-house coders

The Air Force is in dire need of software experts, Andrew Hunter, the service’s top weapons buyer, told senators Wednesday. 

“While we still rely on industry to produce the vast majority of our software, we need enough government expertise to really be a good customer for that,” Hunter said during a Senate Appropriations Committee panel hearing.

Many of his service’s software efforts are handled by the new Air Force Sustainment Center Software Directorate, established last year through the consolidation of three software-engineering organizations.

“We are also increasingly doing organic development of software in our sustainment center, [and] not just for systems that are in sustainment. But also for new development programs, like B-21, in partnership with our prime [contractor],”  Hunter said. “So that software workforce expertise is a key area of need.”

The Defense Department overall has been more focused on understanding, buying, and implementing software across the enterprise. But there’s still a cultural challenge that William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s lead weapons buyer, says can come from peer-to-peer training. 

When asked to grade the Pentagon’s acquisition process, LaPlante gave it an optimistic “B” because demand for U.S. weapons is high even despite a lag in adopting modern software practices.

“The demand for foreign military sales for U.S. equipment is at record highs. Everybody wants the equipment. Everybody sees it work in Ukraine and other places. They know what can also be trained for and sustained,” he said. “Why is it not higher than a ‘B’? Because, No. 1, we still are too slow in certain areas, particularly…with adapting modern software.”  Other problem areas are too few interchangeable parts and getting requirements wrong, he said.  

Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown that quick software upgrades in the field are key to modern war, particularly to counter jamming and spoofing that hinder munitions’ accuracy. Moreover, the U.S. continues to fall behind in its electronic warfare capabilities. 

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., asked LaPlante what the Pentagon was doing to make sure its acquisition workforce was software-fluent, noting concern that DOD wasn’t learning from Ukraine’s “MacGyver-ing of solutions in the midst of an otherwise very difficult and complex battlespace.”

LaPlante said the Defense Acquisition University has experts come in to teach acquisition professionals how to use newer authorities to buy software. 

“The best thing that can be done is experts that have done it in one part of the DoD teaching experts in another part, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re spreading the word,” with a lot of teaching online and participation from industry, he said. “In fact, a class that I spoke to the other day, had a quarter of it were from industry. So I think all of the above is what we’re doing, knowing that you can be an expert in software acquisition today. Two years from now, you may not be an expert anymore; you have to keep up with it.” 

The desire to center software acquisition has spread across services. The Army has been transforming its processes around buying and implementing software with Secretary Christine Wormuth issuing a service-wide directive in March. And the service immediately got to work with “pockets” starting to adapt to the new order, Leonel Garciga, the Army’s chief information officer told reporters Tuesday. 

Garciga said two programs are already delivering software in “real time” under the new policy. 

“We have one program that could technically deliver once a week—right now, today, in real time—the Army interoperability certification, and our approach to that at the time was forcing them to only deliver two times a year. So by streamlining that, and putting it back in the hands of the [program manager], we’re now taking that off the table,” Garciga said. “As we look at testing, that’s going to be the next piece we bring in. But we have some work to do to make sure that we build that framework to get programs to do it. But I will say that there are at least two programs that I feel very comfortable saying are delivering in real-time today. And we’re actively working to break the blockers.”

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