What’s it like to lead the largest software organization on the planet? A recent resignation letter of the U.S. Air Force’s chief tech officer sums up the damning outlook:
“unempowered to fix basic IT issues; still using outdated water-agile-fall acquisition principles to procure services and talent; leaders are not aligned with … pursuing agility [or the] continuous delivery of capabilities; … and we have almost no shared repositories and little to no collaboration across [military] services.”
It’s little wonder then that those toiling away at The Forge, a Navy software factory, are fighting to get traction (read: attention and sustained funding) in Pentagon bureaucracy. Congress needs to snatch victory from the jaws of technological defeat by committing to stable resourcing and leadership support for the solutions this capability generates.
Last May, The Forge delivered updates to some of the oldest ships in the fleet — Aegis cruisers — while one was at sea. This remarkable and long overdue achievement improved the ship’s planning capabilities and cybersecurity. The ability to conduct such remote updates is a huge breakthrough for the fleet and service writ large. At the highest level, this technological advancement and others from The Forge stand poised to both harden ships and make them more capable — two key priorities for the service as it readies ships to operate in more contested waters.
Software factories across the U.S. military are intended to build and train groups of software creators to develop and rapidly roll out new digital tools, and improve on them after release. The Forge is certainly not the only organization that aims to improve how software is delivered across the Navy, the Army and the Air Force.
But The Forge is unique as the Navy’s primary effort to prototype a software factory in Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems. As such, the team will be a key enabler of the Navy’s forcewide integrated combat system, along with driving closer work between the office and a variety of industry partners. If The Forge’s success continues, it will generate more solutions for the Navy at a time when rapidly delivering more combat capabilities to ships is only gaining importance.
But Congress is not paying much attention to where and how The Forge might have a positive impact. Most funding associated with the future integrated combat system is still for low-profile research and development efforts, for example. The Navy’s budget for underlying computing infrastructure for fiscal 2022 was $18.2 million and bucketed within a $364.6 million surface combatant system improvement project. Thanks in no small part to the antiquated defense budgeting process, research and development efforts are slow to field across the Department of Defense and often require sustained support and leadership along the way.
Congress emphasized the need for “end-to-end cybersecurity and anti-tamper technology” across the Navy in its recently passed defense policy bill. But the Hill’s solution of a simple briefing falls far short of the sustained attention required from lawmakers.
In December 2018, Rear Adm. Ron Boxall warned: “We know Aegis. What we don’t know [is how to] upgrade Aegis at the pace I think we need to be moving in the future.” The Navy fleet primarily uses the Aegis Combat System and the Ship Self-Defense System — with the second largely on amphibious ships and Ford-class aircraft carriers — and ships also have other systems that often do not feed the main combat system. The different combat systems run on different hardware, which is expensive to replace and generally requires a lot of downtime for the ship in question.
Ideally, the Navy would be able to rapidly deploy software upgrades across the fleet without upgrading the associated hardware and without pulling into port. But The Forge might be finding an answer to Rear Adm. Boxall’s question.
First, The Forge has “virtualized” the Aegis Combat System and is working on virtualizing the Ship Self-Defense System next. This means The Forge made a replica of the Aegis Combat System’s software package, in effect separating the hardware from the software. Future ship classes, like the upcoming DDG(X) program, can be designed to accommodate virtual combat system software from the outset.
Second, The Forge also works with virtual twins — small hardware packages that contain the same combat system software that runs a given ship. The Forge can create a software update to push out to ships at sea — as it did with the cruiser Monterey — because of the virtual twin.
The challenges with nearly any innovative effort at this scale in the military (just ask the Air Force) are that it will involve risk and it demands stable funding for results. As Rear Adm. Seiko Okano, program executive officer for integrated warfare systems, summarized in April 2021, “we’re in a budget-constrained environment, and frankly we don’t have a lot of time.”
For a benchmark, Adm. Okano compared The Forge’s need for consistent funding with the Navy’s regular budgets for the submarine combat systems’ program for software updates. Congress needs to hold up its side of the equation by passing appropriations for 2022, then asking direct questions of service leaders this spring about how the Navy’s budget request for FY23 will move the Navy closer to developing an integrated combat system — and how innovative organizations like The Forge must be resourced now to support the future fleet.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She served as a staff member on the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission. She also previously worked in both chambers of Congress, at the Pentagon, and on the Joint Staff.