DevStar for B-21 Design, Build, Sustainment

Advanced software development techniques are reducing risk and will enable the Air Force and Northrop Grumman to more efficiently integrate weapons on future aircraft, like the B-21.

First there was DevOps, the agile process to streamline continuous software deployments. Then came DevSecOps, which applies cybersecurity at the start and throughout all phases of DevOps. Now there’s Dev*Ops (DevStar), a novel enabler to the B-21 Raider’s mission-critical functions. The B-21 Raider is the Air Force’s newest bomber—a long-range, stealth bomber capable of carrying a mix of conventional and nuclear ordnance as it replaces the B-1 and B-2 bombers.

Advanced software-development strategies like DevStar have helped keep the program on track—a reality that’s often been alien to a Defense Department accustomed to delays and cost overruns like those on the F-35 program. In contrast, the B-21 is “on time, on budget, and they’re making it work in a very intelligent way,” said Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The DoD has had a “terrible two decades” of Air Force, Navy, and Army program setbacks due to immature technology not delivering promised performance for aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles. “But lessons are being learned and we’re getting better about how we buy these things, so we’re starting to see the change that I think we need to see,” Smith noted at a think-tank event earlier this year. Smith specifically called out the B-21 program as a positive sign in the historically protracted procurement process, calling a recent update he received on the program “one of the most positive, encouraging things that I’ve had happen to me in the last couple of weeks.”

Even industry analysts were surprised by Smith’s positive tone about one of the Pentagon’s major acquisition programs. “Only one thing impresses Adam Smith: fast-track innovation, so apparently, B-21 has pulled it off,” national security analyst Rebecca Grant told Breaking Defense.

The Difference in DevStar

Northrop Grumman is quick to point to the Air Force’s Office of the Chief Software Officer and its DevStar software development initiative as a significant risk-reduction element on the Raider.

“DevStar is a software-development philosophy championed by the U.S. Air Force to field effective warfighting capabilities by eliminating process bottlenecks,” said Steve Sullivan, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Strike Division. “This keeps our delivered systems and the warfighters that use them ahead of our adversaries.”

The DevStar approach centers on four characteristics for rapid software development.

  1. Speed for tight cycle times that enable user feedback and reduce integration risk.
  2. Quality so the delivered capability is what the warfighter needs while minimizing delivered defects.
  3. Focus to deliver a small set of working capabilities vs. a large set of partial capabilities.
  4. Collaboration that synchronizes efforts among the government, prime contractor, and suppliers.

DevStar is a derivative of the end-to-end software approach known as DevOps where small pieces of usable software are constantly developed and deployed, enabling frequent feedback from users to continuously improve the product. In DevStar, the asterisk or “star” is a wildcard symbol to identify additional parts of the software delivery pipeline required to deliver platform software. In the case of the B-21, this approach ensures mission critical functions like security, airworthiness, and weapons certification are addressed.

“DevStar and agile development work well together, as the goal of agile is iterative functionally based software releases that combine to become larger system software releases,” said Chris Daughters, sector vice president of Engineering at Northrop Grumman. “Agile enables us to unite and align cross-functional stakeholders throughout the definition, development, integration, test, and delivery process.”

The purpose of DevStar is to field effective warfighting capabilities at the “speed of relevance,” according to the Air Force. “It is not enough to optimize our development processes. It is an illusion to optimize anything other than the process bottleneck. We must include quality from the first line of code. We must engage early and continuously with key quality stakeholders (security, safety, airworthiness, etc.) to develop a robust infrastructure, architecture, code, and concept of operations.”

Incremental Improvements Instead of Block Upgrades

Northrop Grumman’s integration of a digital thread lets the company rapidly deliver new capabilities out to warfighters. Applying modeling and simulation across all functions enables it to innovate and deliver more efficiently, increasing the speed of execution. In addition, the development and integration of secure, open architectures lets the company provide rapid and incremental solutions to the Air Force.

“Each software release for the B-21 must have first-touch quality built-in from the beginning,” said Sullivan, noting that Northrop Grumman is implementing this approach across several other efforts, including the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile and the Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiatives to link sensors with shooters from all services and across coalition partners. “This requires synchronization of government, prime contractor, and suppliers, as well as the key quality stakeholders within each organization such as airworthiness, safety, security and, of course, the end user,” he said.

Northrop Grumman plans to integrate and leverage the B-21 capabilities with other platforms, such as the Air Forces Advanced Battle Management System program. “We know that we will need to be able to share our B-21 operational, sensor, and maintenance data,” said Sullivan. “To that end, we are building a robust cloud-based digital infrastructure and leveraging non-proprietary Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to meet that requirement.”

To effectively respond to emerging threats, B-21 must rapidly field capability enhancements—where “rapidly” is measured in days or weeks rather than the traditional months or years. Programs have historically struggled on this front since embedded weapon systems have additional certification demands that must be ingrained in the software culture and processes. Elevating these early in the process highlights the importance of incorporating quality into all aspects of a program.

“In an aircraft program, we must continually integrate security, safety, airworthiness, tech orders, training, and others at every stage of the life cycle,” the Air Force relays.

That is a philosophy being taken to heart on the B-21 program, which will help to reduce the amount of time necessary to bring the Raider to initial operating capability, according to Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, and Commander, Air Forces Strategic – Air, U.S. Strategic Command. Ray also said that the Air Force plans to skip the usual “block upgrade” programs for the B-21, a process the service has used to inject a slew of new capabilities all at once into programs such as the F-16 fighter, C-17 transport, and C-130J airlifter, but which have been costly and time-consuming to execute. Rather, Northrop Grumman’s application of advanced software-development techniques and its digital design and engineering approach on the program will let the Air Force incrementally improve the bomber’s hardware and software on a continuous basis, Breaking Defense reports.

“Because of the way we built it and are building it…you can move very quickly,” he said. “And so because you can move very quickly by adding a new radio or new weapon system, you don’t have to do that before your IOC. We can keep requirements stable—and the two big challenges to any acquisition system are stable requirements and stable funding.”

On the Horizon for B-21 Software Development

In addition to focusing on the two test aircraft on Northrop Grumman’s production line in Palmdale, CA—with first flight estimated to be in 2022—the Air Force, Northrop Grumman, and suppliers are building a cloud infrastructure to streamline software development, integration, test, and delivery pipeline. The company is aligned with the Department of Defense’s official Platform One software enterprise services team that merges top talent from software factories such as Air Force’s Kessel Run and Space Force’s Kobayashi Maru.

Northrop Grumman is also looking beyond the first flight toward digital and software sustainment of the future B-21 fleet once in service. In addition to embedding government software engineers as technical contributors on its engineering teams in Melbourne, FL, the company established a dedicated lab in Melbourne for Air Force use. This provides an avenue for government software engineers to ask questions and provide valuable feedback to make the B-21 more affordable for long-term sustainment.

Source: Breaking Defense


  • Dr. Biplab Rath

    A Forensic Medicine and Toxicology expert from AIIMS Bhubhaneswar. He takes keen interest in ballistics, CBRN warfare and related subjects. He has been associated with the IADN since very initial time.

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