Pentagon Lagging Behind in Rapid Software Updating, Report Concludes

Military hardware like the F-35 and night-vision goggles rely heavily on their software to perform effectively in combat. However, a new report from the Hudson Institute reveals the Pentagon’s procurement process is unable to keep this code current.

Pentagon Struggles to Keep Up with Software Updates for Military Hardware

The F-35, known as “a computer that happens to fly,” relies on eight million lines of code to control everything from basic flight functions to long-range targeting. 

Despite this large amount of code, a report from the Hudson Institute notes this is actually less than the code used in a luxury car like the 2020 Mercedes S-Class, which has over 30 million lines.

However, the report’s co-authors Jason Weiss and Dan Patt pointed out the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, designed for industrial-age hardware, has trouble keeping the code for the fighter up to date.

This is compared with the private sector, wherein the software is consistently updated and improved.

The Pentagon’s bureaucracy has not been able to keep up with the shift from traditional military hardware to software-dependent systems. This is a problem in peacetime, but it could have deadly consequences in the event of a sudden conflict.

The Hudson Institute’s upcoming report warns that program managers will not be able to update warfighting software quickly enough in a fast-moving future conflict, affecting everything from command posts to combat vehicles.

In the private sector, the situation is different, which has made rapid progress in software development.

The Importance of Rapid Software Updates in Modern Military Operations

According to Weiss and Patt, what is needed is a system that can update software rapidly, implementing lessons learned and enabling new tactics with the ease of sliding a finger across a mobile phone’s touchscreen.

This rapid updating can save lives, as seen in the case of Ukrainian troops during their conflict with Russia.

The troops relied on Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network, which was temporarily jammed by Russian electronic warfare. However, within a few hours, SpaceX was able to update the software to bypass the interference.

Weiss, a Navy veteran and entrepreneur who previously served as the Pentagon’s chief software officer, noted in this case they simply restructured the conduct of the software within hours, instead of sending new satellites that would take months or years.

Rapid software updates become even more important as the military seeks to coordinate its forces through an AI-enabled meta-network known as Joint All-Domain Command & Control (JADC2), which aims to pass targeting data from “sensors” to “shooters” in seconds.

In a battle between two highly networked militaries, such as China’s “informationized” force, the winner may be the one that updates its code the quickest.

However, the Defense Department’s procurement process, known as Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE), takes years to complete and locks in major decisions eight years in advance.

This makes it difficult to predict where software technology will be in the future and can result in requirements for equipment that are outdated by the time they’re delivered to troops.