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​US auditor gives backstory of software reform on F-22, F-35

A new government audit explains for the first time how the Lockheed Martin F-22 quietly launched a movement within the US Department of Defense four years ago to fix a broken process for developing software for complex weapon systems.

The F-22 seemed a ripe target for management reform in 2014. By then, three software-driven upgrades for the air superiority fighter —Increment 3.2A, Update 5 and Increment 3.2B — had fallen two years and four months behind schedule, the Pentagon’s Inspector General (IG) wrote in a report published on 21 March.

Meanwhile, frustration with the slow pace of software development in multiple weapons programmes, including the Lockheed F-35 Block 3F programme, were boiling over, even as the rate of upgrades for software-based applications in the private sector seemed to be climbing.

With several software-intensive upgrades in the queue, the F-22 programme office made a bold move. The military’s most advanced operational fighter became the first weapon system to adopt an agile software development process, the IG report says.

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US Air Force

Instead of releasing large quantities of new software-cabled capacities in multi-year blocks, the F-22 programme carved up the development work into smaller slices of capabilities that could be delivered every 12-14 weeks, the audit says.

As each new software update is coded, developers perform integrated testing to tackle bugs in more manageable chunks. Rather than waiting until the end of a multi-year block development to begin integrated testing.

The F-22 programme called the new method the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), according to the IG. The approach was once limited limited to the F-22 programme, but the idea began to spread last year.

In September, Vice Adm Mat Winter, the F-35’s programme executive officer, said agile-based software development would be applied to future upgrades of the F-35 and the F-22. He did not mention that the F-35 was following the lead of the F-22, which the IG report reveals had started using the incremental method four years earlier.

The F-22 adopted the agile software approach before the military’s bureaucracy could come up with polices to support it. The focus of the IG’s new report was to fault the F-22 for not adjusting the programme’s cost-plus contracting structure to the new approach to software development. In response, the F-22 programme office says in the report that it has now tweaked the contract to a “level of effort” format, which adjusts payments based on work performed, rather than pre-defined deliverables.

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