COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When Raytheon ran into trouble developing the U.S. Air Force's next-generation GPS control stations, it turned to a tiny Pentagon office populated with technology geeks from Silicon Valley for software help.

The Operational Control System program — called OCX for short — had been plagued with cost overruns and scheduling delays for years, culminating in a breach of the Nunn-McCurdy provision last year, which requires military services to notify Congress if a weapons program's cost per unit increases 25 percent or more above the current baseline estimate.

But the program is back on track, said Bill Sullivan, Raytheon's program manager, and suggestions provided by the Defense Digital Service proved transformational.

"It was taking us over two weeks of time, 80 hours of time, to build a unit of software, do some unit testing, do some functional testing and then get results out the back end," he told reporters at Space Symposium. "By introducing these commercial software best practices, we've shortened that to three hours."

The Defense Digital Service, or DDS, formed in 2015 as one of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter's pet projects meant to take technical innovation from the commercial sector and bring it to the Pentagon. Until recently, the office was most famous for spearheading efforts like the department's bug bounty program, but the Air Force disclosed earlier this year DDS employees were also at work on acquisition programs, with OCX as the flagship.

So, what did DDS do to revamp OCX?

First, Raytheon adopted DevOps, an up-and-coming style of software development that injected automation into the process, Sullivan said.

"When a developer writes some new code and checks it into the system, builds are automatically kicked off, unit tests which have been written are automatically run, the results are automatically processed … and then all software developers can get access to the results at the same time," he explained. The software tools running those tests are typically commercial off-the-shelf, but are customized by Raytheon.

Although DevOps is a commercial best practice, it hadn’t filtered into a major Defense Department acquisition program until DDS suggested using it on OCX.

Another new element for a military weapons program is the use of Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing platform for integration and testing — although not deployment — of unclassified software elements.

"What that does for us it provides an ability to really just be a lot more nimble in terms of environment," Sullivan said. "Instead of having to find space and having to go buy a bunch of servers and rack them up, the virtual nature of the cloud provides you the ability to very quickly stand up an environment and then tear it down when you’re done and then start all over again."

That has enabled Raytheon to write and check code more quickly and freed the company from hardware constraints, he added.

OCX is now progressing according to schedule. The company recently wrapped up the factory qualification of Block 0 — an early iteration runs the system’s launch and checkout system — and is set to deliver it in September or October. The system has been deployed at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and currently is going through site acceptance testing, Sullivan said.

The launch of the first GPS III satellite will occur in March 2018, but OCX won’t become fully operational until 2020 when Block 1 comes online. Block 1 will add more cybersecurity functionality to the system, and Raytheon has finished coding six of seven Block 1 software iterations and integrated five of them, Sullivan said.

The company continues to work with the Air Force Digital Service team, the service's offshoot of DDS that spawned last year, he added.

"It’s been kind of an evolution. It’s impossible to learn everything in a day, so we continue to try to do the things necessary that we think will give us the value for the amount of investment that we put into it to succeed in the program," he said.

Air Force acquisition leaders are interested in broadening the Air Force Digital Service's work to other software-heavy weapons programs. Earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition official, said he and his civilian counterpart, Darlene Costello, were making a list of potential programs that could benefit from the office’s expertise.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

More In Space Symposium