COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Air Force’s ever-late and pricey next-generation GPS control station has been a headache for years, but the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer says there is reason to believe the program is leaving its troubled past behind.

Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, sounded a cautiously optimistic note on the future of the Operational Control Segment (OCX) program during a Friday roundtable with reporters ahead of Space Symposium, which runs this week in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“OCX is a program that I have spent quite a bit of time on because it is a perfect example of where both the department and industry are behind the curve in terms of modernization of software practices,” she said. “We don’t have enough data yet to say we are entirely confident that we’re on the road to recovery, but early indications are very good.”

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Pentagon and Air Force leaders claim that the problems with OCX originated from the complexity of requirements and speed of change in the software world. In essence, software developers at OCX manufacturer Raytheon just couldn’t keep pace with the rate that cyber threats evolved, at least if they were forced to stick to traditional processes.

In June 2016, the Defense Department was forced to declare that OCX had hit a Nunn-McCurdy breach — a level of cost overruns so significant that it triggers a department review of whether to cancel the program. The Pentagon eventually decided to keep OCX but restructure it, forcing the Air Force to hand control over the program to the department itself.

On Friday, Lord pointed to a number of ways the program has come a long way since then.

As of April 1, the program has completely pivoted from traditional waterfall software development to Agile and DevOpps — a transition more than a year in the making that allows software developers to work more collaboratively with operators and incrementally test (and re-test) new code.

“We are now coding every day and testing every night. If you look at Raytheon’s actual floor space in terms of where the OCX team is, you will see an open concept in marked contrast to other groups on the exact same floors,” Lord said.

The department also continues to have regular programs reviews with Raytheon, with Lord adding that she recently sat down with Raytheon CEO Tom Kennedy and Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition executive, to talk about progress on OCX.

And on Friday, Lord announced the creation of a new special assistant for software acquisition that will be able to help guide software-heavy programs like OCX or the F-35 joint strike fighter.

In March, Raytheon announced that the company had entered the final stages of the software build, which involves increasing automation and developing controls for civilian and military-specific GPS signals.

“Our team has two primary goals this year,” Dave Wajsgras, president of Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services, said in a news release. “We will support the U.S. Air Force’s GPS III launch this fall and complete the software build for the full operational system by year’s end.”

But the program is still not in the clear, at least in terms of getting costs under control. Total acquisition costs for the OCX program grew by 12 percent — or $665.3 million — in 2017, according to the selected actuation report released in April. The acquisition program is now estimated to come in at about $6.1 billion due to changes in requirements and an expected funding increase due to the new service cost position.

Performance-wise, Raytheon is “over the 50 percent mark now,” but “the data has to speak for itself,” Lord said.

“We will be looking over the next several months to see how many lines of code are actually being developed and are working well,” she said.

“And we have told the team whereas we have a high level of management vigilance on the program right now, if they demonstrate through metrics that they are making progress both in terms of schedule and cost, we will begin to refrain from so many reviews and so forth. So we’re closely monitoring where it goes.”

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.

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