Agile for the armed forces

Raytheon Intelligence & Space adopts modern software practices

Customers say it all too often:

"You gave me what I asked for, but not really what I wanted."

That’s a problem with the “waterfall method” of software development—a sequential process starting with requirements, then going on to design, testing, deployment and maintenance, which usually includes a lot of changes that weren't initially considered.

Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business, recognized that this approach doesn’t meet the demands of its military, government and commercial customers in a dynamic cyber world, so it has adopted a better and faster way of developing software—using Agile and DevOps with cloud-native platforms.

The company is using Agile and DevOps to support key U.S. Air Force programs such as the GPS next-generation operational control system (GPS OCX) and the Air and Space Operations Center Weapon System, or AOC Pathfinder program, which is led by the Air Force and spearheaded by the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. Both programs are supported by Air Force Digital Services—a team of industry experts that former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called a “nerd cyber SWAT team.”

Phase 1 of AOC Pathfinder began in August 2017, with Raytheon Intelligence & Space sending the first two engineers to San Francisco, where they spent three weeks at software company Pivotal, where they hosted a battle-damage-assessment application on an unclassified cloud.

“Employing Agile and DevOps is going to speed up the software life cycle, getting new features into the hands of the men and women of the Armed Forces a lot quicker,” said Leon Kaplan, a senior software engineer on the AOC Pathfinder program for Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “The Amazons and the Googles of the world can deploy software updates to their user interfaces hundred times a day because of Agile and DevOps, but if you’re using the traditional method of software development, it could take a very long time to do a single update.”

Both Agile and DevOps put a priority on people and interactions over tools and processes. It emphasizes constant communication within teams as well as with the customer. Teams meet frequently so everybody knows what everybody else is doing, creating a feedback loop that lets teams adjust based on what customers are telling them.

“The customers get involved early on,” said Quynh Tran, an RI&S senior software engineer. “Now, operators will no longer get products they weren’t expecting or wanted. With constant feedback, as a developer, you get insights on how your software development choices affect end users and this motivates you to develop better and more secure software with them in mind.”

For six months, both Tran and Kaplan worked on AOC Pathfinder out of Pivotal's office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Air and Space Operations Centers provide a strategic capability for the U.S. Air Force with operators at 22 global locations. The AOC Weapon System provides command and control of aircraft conducting a range of missions in a set geographical area.

Using an iterative approach, breaking down a large application into smaller chunks, and a cloud-based platform, speeds up software development because a bug in a small piece of code doesn't impact the whole application, according to Tran. With a push of a button, the code goes through the DevOps pipeline where it’s tested, security scanned and deployed into the secured cloud environment. If your code doesn’t pass at any stage, the pipeline immediately lets you know.

Tran believes that the Defense Department is going to change its acquisition policies and demand Agile and DevOps in the near future.

“The DevOps model allows our customers to ask for the products they really want," she said. “The results: we are shortening deployment times and prioritizing work based on their needs. We're going to be better at meeting their expectations.”

Raytheon Intelligence & Space also has experience using Agile and DevOps on the military’s Distributed Common Ground System, which is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system that collects, processes, exploits, disseminates and archives intelligence.

“The iterative improvement process and allowing the developers to talk with partners frequently benefits everybody,” Tran said. “Military users get their requests changed in months instead of years and see the results of continuous feedback.”