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​A USAF F-22 Raptor receives fuel from a KC-10 Extender assigned to the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron out of Al Dhafra AB, United Arab Emirates, on Aug. 28, 2019. Air Force photo by SSgt. Chris Drzazgowski.

The F-22 Raptor is among the planet’s most advanced combat aircraft, but to ensure it stays ahead of new Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighters, the service has had to rip up the rulebook—and get Lockheed Martin to rip up its own, too.

Two years ago, faced with mounting delays in F-22 modernization efforts that threatened the fighter’s dominance over its competitors, the Air Force decided to reform the way it rolls out updates to the Raptor. Instead of a conventional approach, in which requirements are documented in detail and the update is not delivered until every element is complete, USAF wanted to introduce new capabilities on a rolling basis using an approach known as “agile” development.

"Looking at our competitors ... they have very rapid development cycles,” said Lt. Col. Christina Rusnock, materiel leader for the F-22 modernization program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. “In order for us to maintain our competitive advantage, our air superiority, we knew that we needed to do business differently … to move more quickly.”

The 2001 Agile Manifesto proposed a new methodology for software development, one that is now mainstream in the consumer world, where software updates are issued frequently and often without fanfare. Think of mobile phones and cloud-based apps, for example, which introduce new features and change interfaces without warning. Agile practitioners compare their methodology to a cultural revolution, leading organizations to embrace flatter, more flexible management structures and driving changes that extend far beyond coding and development.

Adopting such a methodology in highly structured government programs is more ambitious still, given the rigidity of government contracts and traditional defense acquisition processes. Yet the Air Force felt it was necessary. Rusnock said it would take 10 to 12 years to deliver new capabilities for the F-22 using conventional waterfall development—too long given the pace at which adversaries were updating.

Although the Air Force has used agile development before, the F-22 modernization is the first time it has been employed while developing both hardware and software, according to a DOD inspector general report last year, multiplying the challenges involved.

The Air Force told Lockheed Martin in so many words, “Change or be changed,” Michael Cawood, the company’s vice president for F-16 and F-22 product development, recalled at a technology conference earlier this year.

Lockheed Martin’s embrace of agile—for the F-35 as well as the F-22—has made the defense giant one laboratory in which the newly dominant paradigm for commercial software development will be tested in the defense environment. It will help answer the question: Can agile work in defense?

The iterative nature of agile development means requirements can be “sliced and diced” according to how critical they are and how easy to deliver, Rusnock said.

“It was clear that we could get some of those capabilities much earlier than if we were to wait until every single one was complete,” Rusnock said. “Instead of fielding one big bang many years away, we can start to field them much earlier”—in two or three years instead of a decade or longer.

Agile also means program managers can be responsive to changing threats and emerging capabilities, and restructure the pipeline accordingly. “Some capabilities may never be delivered,” she said, eclipsed by more urgent requirements until they become irrelevant.

In 2017, said Rusnock, the program office restructured four of its ongoing modernization efforts into “an agile capability delivery pipeline.” The four lines of effort were:

  • Tactical Link: Providing the F-22 with the capability to transmit data using NATO-standard Link 16 technology.
  • Tactical Mandates: Providing enhanced “friend-or-foe” identification capabilities.
  • Sensor enhancements: Providing improvements to the F-22’s advanced sensor technology and the software fusion engine that give the pilot a comprehensive overhead view.
  • GPS with Military Code: Providing new jamming- and interference-proof navigation capabilities.

Link 16 transmit capability could enable the stealthy F-22 to operate in concert with coalition air operations as a quarterback, enabling the plane to share its “God’s eye view” of the battlespace with other aircraft, according to Orlando “OJ” Sanchez Jr., Lockheed's vice president of F-22 programs. “The F-22 is the quarterback … that’s what it feels like, you have all this information and you can call plays,” he said.

In February 2018, the F-22 program office used new acquisition authorities under section 804 of the Fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to issue a task order to Lockheed Martin—the Raptor Agile Capability Release, or RACR, contract.

In fiscal 2019, RACR was funded for $140 million, out of the office’s $563 million research and development budget—part of the $2.7 billion total direct cost of modernization and sustainment for the F-22 that year, according to Rusnock.

She said RACR was structured as a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract with an award fee, “an incentive based on the contractor’s transformation … into an agile software development pipeline.”

Lockheed Martin has embraced the need to revolutionize the way it develops software, said Sanchez. A retired Air Force colonel and F-22 pilot, Sanchez said the company’s goal was to “deliver these new capabilities ahead of the threat and at the speed of relevance.”

To do that, Sanchez said the company didn’t just change delivery schedules. “We totally redesigned our seating arrangements and our floor spaces,” he said. “We have folks sitting in small, agile teams with no walls or low walls. … Software engineers sitting with mechanical engineers … based on the product they’re delivering.”

Cross-functional teams can tackle and solve problems more quickly and that means they can  deliver software updates “much faster today than we have in the past,” he said.

RACR also enables program reviews to be divided into smaller, more frequent demonstrations with a wider range of participants. Holding these every six weeks helps developers quickly realize if they have to rework something. “They get much faster feedback that way,” Sanchez said of the development team. “You save time and you allow for this check and adjust.”

Still, RACR isn’t exactly rolling out updates like Apple does on your iPhone. The first RACR release will take place next year, and Lockheed and the Air Force plan annual releases thereafter, Sanchez said.

With Link 16, the new approach means F-22 pilots will be able to get some capability while waiting for more, rather than all or nothing. Link 16 capabilities consist of hundreds of potential data messages accompanying location information, from “Here I am,” to “Here’s a bad guy.”

Users will get to decide which are the most important messages, then look to incorporate them in an early release—the first minimum viable product.

That first release, supporting only a handful of messages and including new hardware to start transmitting them, will be in RACR Release 1.0. Sanchez expects it will begin flight testing at the beginning of next year.

James Chow, a senior engineer and director of the Force Modernization and Employment Program at RAND Corp.’s Project Air Force and chairman of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, argued that, if successful, the effort could serve as a model for future programs.

“These are important upgrades and the sooner we can get them out the better,” he said. “If it proves successful, it will be very helpful for future modernization efforts, not just the F-22.”