FUTURE COMBAT | MAKING THE CODE
The Complex Crux Of Wireless Warfare
By the Lines
Thursday, January 24, 2008
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- hostlist.6223.soscoe.c16.
That line of code, like modern-day hieroglyphics, flashes on a flat screen in a classified Boeing plant under the studious gaze of the warriors of the future: software developers, one with spiked hair, another who looks too young to vote. They are working on the largest software program in Defense Department history, a project that the military says dwarfs Microsoft's Windows. The project is the heart of Future Combat Systems, the Army's most expensive weapons program.
"There's nothing like it, ever," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense consultant at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank. "Nobody has ever before attempted to integrate a software system as remotely complicated as FCS is going to be. It is many times more complicated than any other defense program."
Future Combat Systems, or FCS, is a roughly $200 billion weapons program that military officials consider the most thorough modernization of the Army since World War II. It all depends on the software, under development by the Army's battalion of contractors, led by Boeing. The software is intended to do what military commanders have until now only dreamed about: give soldiers the power to communicate through a wireless network in near real time with hovering drones; remotely control robots to defuse bombs; fire laser-guided missiles at enemies on the move; and conduct a video teleconference in a tank rumbling about 40 mph in the haze of battle.
The Army is counting on such an advantage by linking weapons through the software system that it is reducing the heavy armor on planned combat vehicles, reasoning that soldiers will be better able to detect and strike the enemy first.
"Magic under the hood" is what Boeing engineer Paul D. Schoen, one of the project leaders, calls the software. Others in the military call it Windows on steroids. John Williams, a chisel-jawed sergeant stationed at the Boeing plant who has served in both wars with Iraq, isn't interested in what it's called. "Soldiers don't care about software," he said. What they care about is "if it's going to work."
There's some debate about that. Boeing says the project is on track, but congressional investigators have questioned whether the software will perform as intended. Military experts question the ability of the code to withstand an onslaught of attacks -- from hackers, worms and Trojan horses -- that could leave soldiers vulnerable.
Congressional investigators are also concerned that the lines of code have nearly doubled since development began in 2003. And they question the Army's oversight of a far-flung project involving more than 2,000 developers and dozens of contractors working across the nation, including in Clear Lake, Tex.; Huntsville, Ala.; Philadelphia, Mesa, Ariz.; Red Bank, N.J.; Seattle; and here, in Southern California, in an old rocket factory.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress's watchdog, says the Army underestimated the undertaking. When the software project began, investigators say the Army estimated it needed 33.7 million lines of code; it's now 63.8 million -- about three times the number for the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft program.
The software program "started prematurely. They didn't have a solid knowledge base," said Bill Graveline, a GAO official involved in the government's ongoing review. "They didn't really understand the requirements."
John Ortiz, a GAO analyst, said the Army has grappled with the limitations of wirelessly transmitting still images, video and audio, forcing developers "to rethink and go back to the chalkboard. That is a software issue . . . They have to figure out how to compress the information, how to slice and dice it."
Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing's program manager on Future Combat Systems, said, "The scope and scale of the software job was well understood from the start." He said that Boeing has delivered about a third of the software and that it remains on schedule to be completed in 2012. Muilenburg also said that the original software estimate was 55 million lines of code, not 33.7 million. While he acknowledged the number of lines have increased, he said that is largely because of the use of more commercial software, which he said saves Boeing time and money. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Army's chief information officer, confirmed that the software development cost -- about $6 billion -- has not increased.