As almost everything in today’s commercial and military world is underpinned by some type of software capability, the sustainment of that software is of critical national security importance.

The services around the military are beginning to take internal looks at how they do software sustainment from an organic standpoint either at depots — which traditionally focused on hardware and platform maintenance — or software sustainment centers.

One recent example is the organic software sustainment capability the Air Force is standing up at the Air Force Sustainment Center for the F-35 fighter jet.

The F-35’s joint program office assigned the Air Force nine software workloads for the F-35, and gave nine to the Navy.

When most think of the F-35, they think of it as a fifth-generation fighter that can do amazing things, Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center, told C4ISRNET in an interview on the sidelines of the Air Force Association’s annual conference. But instead, think of it as a fifth-generation software package that can do amazing things, he added.

“The power of the F-35, it’s great that it has low observables, a great engine. But what really makes it powerful is the software,” he said. “The software in the F-35 is really the special sauce. … How we take care of that software over time is really important.”

While Air Force software sustainment is generally 60 percent cheaper than industry, said Levy, adding that cost wasn’t the main driver behind developing an organic software sustainment capability for the F-35.

The law mandates that the Department of Defense performs specific workloads so it maintains a level of readiness in case commercial firms can’t or don’t do it. Thus, it isn’t just about how much money the service saves, but rather about effectiveness, capability and capacity when the U.S. is challenged, Levy noted. It’s also about giving the Air Force and the DoD flexibility to manage workloads in response to emerging national security threats, Levy continued.

This effort is also about keeping software current, fresh and relevant, Levy said, and the DoD must handle the software correctly.

“Software behaves way differently than hardware. That’s one of the reasons we sometimes have a challenge in the DoD; we try to apply the hardware acquisition model, the hardware financing and the hardware sustainment model to something that doesn’t behave the same way,” he said. “It’s about being able to sustain it inside of the government in order to exploit vulnerabilities in our adversary, and when we discover vulnerabilities about ourselves we’ll be able to close these gaps.”

“In an Iron-Age Air Force, we bend mental. In an information-age Air Force, fifth- and sixth-generation Air Force, we bend ones and zeros,” Levy added. “Our ability to bend ones and zeros rapidly will be a decisive advantage in imposing our will against an adversary and not allowing them to impose their will against us.”

This ability to wield ones and zeros as he put it, will allow the force to rapidly fix flaws or vulnerabilities discovered. As soon as the F-35 is turned on, it immediately connects to the network necessitating the ability to quickly fix vulnerabilities.

From industry’s perspective, software sustainment is nothing new. Most if not all private companies have incorporated software sustainment into their business practices.

In the past, defense contractors provided services for the government after a request for proposals, said Tom Gould, head of business development for Harris Corporation, who spoke to C4ISRNET on the sidelines of the AFA conference. In these instances, a contractor would be chosen to provide a software program, then deliver it and then move on, waiting for the next RFP, he explained.

“The way the Air Force and the way Harris is teaming with the Air Force is to say: ‘OK, now we’re going to deliver the software, and we’re going to stay with the software as it’s integrated and as it’s employed operationally,’ ” Gould said.

Gould, and others, noted that the military is now adding software sustainment components to their contracts.

“Suffice to say we are extremely interested in supporting our customer as they try to define what software sustainment looks like for their fleets,” Pat Antkowiak, corporate vice president and chief technology officer at Northrop Grumman, said in late August during a media roundtable with reporters.

“There’s going to be some cases where the customer will want a direct sustainment and there’s somewhere they’re going to want contractors to support and provide,” he said. “We’re going to be there, we’re going to try to define the right architectures and approaches. We’re going to deal with some of the unique aspects of security and trust and cyber resiliency that I think are fundamental to maintaining systems over a long period of time.”

Raytheon is also partnering with the military and various depots around the country to help build organic software sustainment capability while also performing sustainment on a variety of equipment themselves for the government.

Todd Probert, vice president of mission support and modernization at Raytheon, told C4ISRNET during the AFA conference that Ogden Air Logistics Complex — the software sustainment authority for the Air Force — has been subcontracted by Raytheon for some of its programs.

Probert also explained that Raytheon is trying to take an agnostic approach.

“The beauty of what we’ve done over the various programs over the last three years is to prove we can come in and take over someone else’s software and sustain it as good as or, in some cases, better because we’re not wedded to that traditional code base,” he explained. “We’re going in and saying we need to rebuild this baseline and migrate to a better foundational infrastructure to allow us to do the things we need to do to allow the system to evolve. ... Our strategy is to set our customers up to get on that path versus to force them to stay within a particular company or IT situation.”

In fact, Levy said he’s embedded part of his government workforce in some contractor facilities early in the program so they can sit next to the software developers to understand architecture, the design and the engineering pedigree of that software so when it comes to the service, they are already have a head start.