GAO: Software design could hinder Future Combat System

The centerpiece program of the Army's transformation, the Future Combat System, could collapse under the weight of poor software design, according to the Government Accountability Office.


In two reports released March 10, GAO said total source lines of code for the $200 billion program have reached 95.1 million, almost triple the original estimate made in 2003. “Poor size estimation is one of the main reasons that major software-intensive acquisition programs ultimately fail,” GAO said.


However, the Army’s FCS program office said the program is nowhere close to failure. “Fielding the FCS Brigade Combat Team is the cornerstone of Army modernization. It is a commitment, not an option,” said Army spokesman Paul Mehney.


FCS comprises manned light tanks, robots and sensors that would be able to find and shoot enemies before they attack. The program’s success hinges on development of a communication network among all components – and the network is largely a software function.


Although GAO credits the Army and FCS’ lead system integrator, Boeing Corp., with attempting to put in place sound software development practices, total lines of code nonetheless have swelled about four times larger than other software-intensive projects, such as the Joint Strike Fighter.


Mehney said the increase is primarily due to FCS officials’ decision to incorporate commercial technology, mainly the Red Hat version of the Linux operating system.


“By using proven and secure [commercial] software, the Army is saving cost by reducing development and evaluation time,” Mehney said.


Further, a better measure of program health would be to count the effective source lines of code, which takes into account how much code has been reused or adapted, rather than the total lines, Mehney said. Effective line estimates have been relatively stable since 2005, he said. GAO estimated a 15 percent growth to a total of 19.6 million.


GAO noted other problems with software development, however. Developers have complained that requirements have been poorly defined, arrived late or were unstable. That has resulted in the deferment of some functions to future builds or their being waived altogether for the sake of keeping to the schedule, according to GAO.


Boeing program spokesman John Morocco noted that the plan calls for an incremental development approach, which “provides the ability to learn from each previous build as well as adjust to any changes in technology or priorities.”


However, taken in total, evidence presented by GAO points to a program in trouble, said one defense software consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The government does hardware buying really well, but software — they’re just incapable of doing it,” the consultant said.


For example, incremental development is a good idea — but for it work, it requires turnarounds of weeks rather than years, the consultant said. “The problem with software is that new languages come up, and also the computer software…changes so rapidly,” he said. A model of quicker software development spirals would be possible even within the constraints of today’s complex acquisition environment, the consultant said. “It just takes leadership and somebody knowing how to do it.”

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