Pentagon software acquisition enters new era with updated purchasing policy

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Software acquisition, widely seen as a “nightmare” in the Pentagon, is getting a major update as the Department of Defense sets to overhaul its purchasing policies.

Software will now be bought under its own “pathway” in what the DOD is called the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, which allows for greater flexibility in acquiring different kinds of goods and services.

Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord officially unveiled the new software policy Wednesday, calling recent overarching acquisition changes “the most transformative” in decades. The biggest change will be buying iterative software rather than waiting to launch fully developed custom code, Lord said. This will allow the military to focus on buying software and putting it in the hands of warfighters quickly, and then updating it when needed.

DOD used to have a “one size fits all model” for acquisition that basically constrained the military to buying code in the same way it bought tanks. Checklists and requirements were developed with senior-leader approval when the DOD wanted to purchase anything. When it came to software, that system often created long wait times that lead to years-long delays in digital modernization.

“The acquisition system became an impediment to delivering capability,” Lord said.

By giving software its own pathway, contracting officers now have unique tools for buying code, letting them focus on the full development and sustainment of programs.  For example, Lord said that the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrence system is already using the new software pathway to securely develop code in coordination with industry to shave months off timelines.

“Programs will require government and contractor software teams to use modern iterative software development methodologies … modern tools and techniques (e.g., development, security, and operations (DevSecOps)), and human-centered design processes to iteratively deliver software to meet the users’ priority needs,” says the new policy, officially titled 5000.87.

The policy is based on a study from the Defense Innovation Board on software acquisition. It is not the full implementation of all of the study’s recommendations, some of which will need congressional approval, such as changing the Budget Activity, or “color of money” for software. The Budget Activity change is currently being piloted, and Lord said that Congress is supportive of the changes.

“By removing procedural bottlenecks, programs are pushed to deliver with much faster cycle time,” she said.

Stacy Cummings, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for acquisition enablers, said her office will work closely with contracting officers and acquisition policy officials to change practices as the new framework gets rolled out. For software, Cummings said as more parts of the military use similar technology-development stacks, achieving Authorities To Operate (ATOs) will happen much faster.

“By using those common stacks, we also get automatic ATOs,” Lord added.

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Acquisition reform, Defense Innovation Board, Department of Defense (DOD), Ellen Lord, Software Acquisition
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