Pentagon backs spiral development

"What spiral development addresses is getting the capability to the field much faster." -- Douglas Barton, Lockheed Martin

New methodology still unclear to some in government and industry

When the Army last month awarded a $14.9 billion contract to Boeing Co. and Science Applications International Corp. for its Future Combat Systems program, the service stipulated that these cutting-edge systems be built using a cutting-edge methodology known as spiral development.

The Army is not acting alone. In May, the Defense Department updated its 5000.2 Defense Acquisition directive to instruct its programming offices to use the methodology.

The directive called for program offices writing contracts to identify the capabilities they needed, but not the end requirements. Instead, a program office would maintain a tight feedback loop with its contractors, designing the solution piece by piece. "Build a little, test a little, build a little," is how industry experts described the process.

By going with this approach, defense contractors can incorporate new technologies into new weapon platforms and systems, rather than delivering solutions using only those technologies that existed when the systems were initially designed.

The Air Force uses the methodology to develop its air theater battle management system, led by Lockheed Martin Corp., as does the Army for its logistics modernization program, headed by Computer Sciences Corp.

"What spiral development addresses is getting the capability to the field much faster," said Douglas Barton, director of technology for the mission systems division of Lockheed Martin, Bethesda, Md.

"The goal is to increase flexibility and efficiency," said Roy Hallquist, senior project director of CSC of El Segundo, Calif., of the Defense Department directive. "It allows contractors to rely more on their own processes and work with the program offices to find the best process for each program."

"It's a culture change," Barton said. "But once you get over the hurdle of thinking, 'Good grief, I'm proceeding without hard requirements,' you like it."


For the Defense Department, spiral development solves how to keep a platform technologically and operationally up to date while it's being built.

Traditionally, it might take an integrator a decade or more to deliver a complex fleet of aircraft or a weapons system. Because modern technologies, especially information technologies, change so rapidly, a platform may be outdated before it is ready for service. Think space shuttle.

But after the initial design phase, the contractor cannot easily make major changes. An agency that wants to re-engineer the platform to meet a new mission or take advantage of a new technology is out of luck. Instead, it must start working on the next-generation system.

By using spiral development as outlined in the directive, a program office identifies a desired capability but does not specify how the final system be built. Instead, after the first production release is delivered, the contractor tests new features and technologies, consulting with the program office on which ones are ready for use.

The contractor uses a modular approach, in which features are built independently of one another, so that a problem with one component won't necessarily slow development of others.

Spiral development worked well for the Air Force's Theater Battle Management Core Systems, or TBMCS. The Air Operations Center uses this interlocked group of systems as the central point for joint-service air-combat planning, coordination and execution.

It provides information drawn from different systems to pilots, navigators and weapons control officers. During the recent war in Iraq, more than 47,000 sorties were coordinated through the system.

In 1995, when the Air Force was hashing out the requirements for such a system, it did not see Web technologies, then nascent, as a possible tool. But by 2000, when the Air Force had signed Lockheed Martin to a $375 million TBMCS deployment, the service decided the system would be best-served by a Web architecture, rather than by the client-server model originally planned.

The shift to a Web system would allow service personnel to use laptop computers or other mobile computing platforms, rather than being tethered to a desktop computer loaded with a specific TBMCS application.

Normally, this kind of systemwide upgrade would require a separate modernization contract, which, once the original systems were complete, would freeze them from further enhancements until they could be phased out.

But using the existing TBMCS contract vehicle, Lockheed Martin was able to make the change with relative ease, because the Air Force had structured the contract so that parts of the systems would roll out in regular intervals over six years. Lockheed Martin could migrate existing TBMCS applications to a Web architecture over time.

Spiral development has helped CSC's logistics modernization work for the Army.

In 1999, the company received a 10-year, $680 million contract from the Army to re-engineer and modernize its logistics systems. Crucial to this ongoing development project is a crop of commercially available enterprise applications tools that just recently reached maturity, Hallquist said. CSC was able to introduce these products into the system as they became available.

Another large system that will use spiral development is the Air Force's E-10A Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft, designed to hold sensors that relay battlefield data to command and control centers. The request for proposals for the battle management subsystem, estimated to be worth $422 million, should be released soon.

General Dynamics Corp., Falls Church, Va., found spiral development to be invaluable in creating joint-mission management software for the Army to use in Korea, according to Willie Castile, General Dynamics' project manager for the program.

The Army needed a way to coordinate missile launches, not only among its own field sites but also with the Korean military. Before the system was commissioned in 1998, missile launches were coordinated by phone or fax -- a slow, cumbersome process. The Army wanted a computer-based system that could coordinate attacks.

However, the Army did not specify how the software for this, called the Automated Deep Operations Coordination System, should work or what features it should have. Instead, the Army left the task of fulfilling the requirement to General Dynamics, which sent engineers to the field to show prototypes to end users, who critiqued the design.

The company made changes to the software based on user input, returned with the results and repeated the process. Only when a design was finalized did it get vetted through the necessary officials.

"We shortened the development span from months down to days," Castile said.


Despite its successes, spiral development is an enigma to many contracting officers and integrators. Many are still uncertain what it is, especially in relation to incremental development -- another dearly held Pentagon concept, said Mark Gordon, analyst for the National Center for Advanced Technologies, a nonprofit research foundation in Washington. "There is still a fair amount of confusion," Gordon said.

This was evidenced at a Washington conference on spiral development, held May 19-21 by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement. Primarily, contractors and contract manager officers wanted clarifications about the difference between incremental and spiral development.

Both fall under an approach the Pentagon calls "evolutionary acquisition," Hallquist said. A major difference is that in incremental development, the platform or "end deliverable" is clearly stated in the work description. Spiral development does not specify a product, allowing instead the contractor and agency to work in partnership to find the best solution.

Gordon, however, said contractors shouldn't get too bogged down in the semantics. Rather, they should document the approach they take and work closely with contracting offices.

"I don't think anyone wants to paint a contractor into a corner. Flexibility and innovation are everything," Gordon said. *

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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