The Complex Crux Of Wireless Warfare
Viability of Software for Army Weapons System Questioned

By Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Questionable Beginning

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.

Part of the complexity is that developers are creating about a fifth of the software for the weapons program, the GAO estimates; for the rest, they are stitching together software from other military programs and buying more than half of it from the commercial sector. But the federal agency noted in a report last year that "the amount of software code to be written -- already an unprecedented undertaking -- continues to grow," underscoring that the toughest part of developing software is usually in the last 10 percent. The risk is that the software may not be developed by the time the combat vehicles and weapons are ready, the GAO cautions.

Malicious Code

Military experts also worry about hackers, viruses and the possibility that the software will fail in battle, because Future Combat Systems reduces the amount of heavy armor on combat vehicles on the assumption that the technology will let soldiers see first, then strike first.

"How many times does your computer system go down in a week?" said Jim Currie, a retired Army reserve colonel, military historian and professor at the National Defense University.

As part of Future Combat Systems, the Army is designing a new generation of combat vehicles, equipped with sensors and rockets to intercept missiles and rocket-propelled grenades; each vehicle weighs about 30 tons, less than half that of the standard Abrams tank.

The Defense Science Board, an advisory body to the secretary of defense, raised concerns in a report last year about commercial code created by foreign programmers. "Malicious code is a key concern of the FCS program," the panel said, adding that it "lacks confidence in current tools for detecting malicious code."

Boeing's Muilenburg said, "We go through a series of tests to defend against all of those threats." That, he said, includes hacking into the network to identify vulnerabilities.

Another software difficulty is the operating system, which is being developed by Boeing. The System-of-Systems Common Operating Environment, or SOSCOE, is supposed to be like Windows, the world's dominant operating system, only better. It will be embedded in the 14 combat vehicles, robots, drones, sensors and weapons that comprise Future Combat Systems, helping soldiers to communicate with the different systems through a wireless network using radios, relays and satellites.

Boeing and the Army said they chose not to use Microsoft's proprietary software because they didn't want to be beholden to the company. Instead, they chose to develop a Linux-based operating system based on publicly available code.

Microsoft, which does substantial business with the military, declined to comment.

Boeing's Schoen said that it is designing software so that if soldiers lose their connection, the software will automatically "heal itself," retrieving the information within seconds without rebooting. The software, in the name of speed, will find an efficient mathematical algorithm to reconnect the soldier. The design is a combination of commercial software and code written from scratch by many software developers, he said. Instead of Microsoft, Boeing said it is using software developed by a hodgepodge of companies including Red Hat and Wind River Systems. Boeing is developing the operating system with SAIC, which is also assisting Boeing on another critical piece of software for the Army program, the Warfighter Machine Interface, which is essentially what soldiers will see on their monitors.

SAIC worked on another major software development program for the U.S. government, and it didn't go well. In 2001, the FBI hired SAIC to create software to update the bureau's computer systems and later to replace its paper files. By 2004, the FBI abandoned the $170 million program, starting over. Arnold Punaro, an SAIC executive vice president, said in a statement that the company recognized problems early in the program. But it was "not forceful enough in bringing them to the attention of the FBI's most senior leaders, including the director."

An Available System

When the Army began developing Future Combat Systems, it decided to rely on Boeing and SAIC to create a new operating system rather than borrow from what it already had, Blue Force Tracking.

Designed by Northrop Grumman, a Boeing rival, Blue Force allows soldiers to use satellite technology to locate themselves and friendly forces, one of the goals of Future Combat Systems. Blue Force can also estimate enemy positions, based on intelligence. It was first used in combat in Afghanistan in 2002 and a year later in Iraq. About a year ago, Northrop said it demonstrated how its system could be used to communicate with an unmanned aerial vehicle, much as Boeing's system would.

Nonetheless, Northrop, a subcontractor to Boeing on Future Combat Systems, said it does not view Blue Force as a competitor to Boeing's software. Others do. Boeing's software and related hardware will cost about $250,000 per combat vehicle, about 10 times the cost of Blue Force, said Dan Goure, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute. Muilenburg, of Boeing, said his company's software will be much more advanced than Blue Force, saying that if Boeing's SOSCOE is like the Windows operating system, then Blue Force is akin to one of its applications, like PowerPoint.

Army officials said they were taking a harder look at the two systems, among others. The Army recently held a battle command summit, looking for one integrated common platform that would link its forces within five to seven years.

The GAO, for its part, is studying Future Combat Systems' software development, expecting to issue a report in March. Already, however, the GAO knows this much: Paul L. Francis, the point man in its studies of the weapons program, said his agency recommended that the Army develop the software network before designing the weapons, devices and combat vehicles, but "the Army wanted the system very fast and had a very ambitious schedule."

One concern is that the software ultimately won't be able to do what it's supposed to do. "Is that a possibility?" said Sorenson, the general. "Certainly, the answer is yes." But he said developers are performing rigorous tests, simulations and evaluations along the way.

The GAO remains dubious. "We do not know at this point if FCS is doable," Francis said, "in its totality, or the network."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company