Air Force DevStar: Agile software development and innovation for the B-21 “Breaking Defense” bomber
In partnership with the US Air Force, Northrop Grumman is advancing the software development process, providing speed and efficiency in development and ensuring rapid upgrades for platforms such as the B-21 Raider once commissioned. In this Q&A, we discuss the status of the B-21 program with Steve Sullivan, Vice President and General Manager, Strike Division.
Breaking Defense: Tell us about DevStar and how it relates to the B-21.
Sullivan: DevStar is a software development philosophy championed by the US Air Force for deploying effective combat capabilities by removing process bottlenecks. This keeps our systems delivered and the fighters who use them before our opponents. The DevStar approach focuses on four characteristics for rapid software development.
The first is the rapidity of tight cycle times that allow users to react and reduce the risk of integration. Second, the quality so that the capacity produced is what the fighter needs while minimizing the defects delivered. The third is the focus, which offers a smaller set of working capacities compared to a large set of partial capacities. And finally, there is the collaboration for synchronized efforts between government, contractors and suppliers.
DevStar is a derivative of the end-to-end software pipeline known as DevOps, where small pieces of usable software are constantly developed and then quickly improved with user feedback. In DevStar, the asterisk or “star” is used as a generic symbol to identify the parts of the software delivery pipeline that are needed to deliver software to a platform. In the case of B-21, which will perform both conventional and nuclear missions, this approach ensures that mission critical functions such as safety, airworthiness and weapons certification are taken into account.
For example, every version of the B-21 software should have “first touch quality” built in from the start. This requires the synchronization of government, contractor and suppliers, as well as the key quality players within each organization, such as airworthiness, safety, security and, of course, the end user.
Northrop Grumman implements this approach as part of several other efforts, to include the Strategic ground deterrence to replace the LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile and the Command and control common to all areas initiatives to link sensors to shooters across all departments and between coalition partners.
Breaking Defense: How do Air Force DevStar initiatives affect software development on the B-21 Raider?
Sullivan: Virtually all weapon systems developed over the past three decades have required vast amounts of software to activate the capability provided. These weapon systems require almost constant software updates to keep up with hardware changes and emerging threats on the battlefield. The B-21 is no different.
Working in partnership with the US Air Force, the DevStar software approach pushed our early developments towards afterburning to deliver code at a breakneck pace. Our continuous certification pipeline streamlines requirements for on-board flight software, security, mission and even training to quickly deliver integrated end-to-end capabilities. Given the emergence of a dynamic threat environment, this rapid provision of capabilities is not a luxury. It is an operational imperative.
This is a trip that we have taken with the US Air Force since the very beginning of the program. Every day, we pursue continuous process improvement initiatives to move closer to the imperative of continuous and prompt delivery of software to the warrior. I am impressed with the progress our team has made to date. I look forward to working closely with the Air Force to further integrate this software development process into the B-21 ecosystem.
Breaking Defense: Rapid software delivery sounds incredibly ambitious. How did Northrop Grumman prepare for this task?
Sullivan: Software development and speed are not terms traditionally used in the same sentence with major weapon systems. We made an early investment in development infrastructure, including the dedicated 270,000 square foot laboratory at our center of excellence for manned aircraft design in Melbourne, Florida. We have also developed a highly skilled workforce with expertise in DevStar, containerization through Kubernetes, open systems architectures and other key weapon system functions. Most importantly, we are focused on gradually building our software to deliver unsustainable products targeting frequent and early demonstrations of combatant abilities. This approach to software development helps deliver quality software for the B-21 Raider – a key differentiating feature of the bomber.
Our investments have paid off. Last year, the former Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics praised our independent research and development demonstration where we ran native open mission systems software in the cloud with Kubernetes on flight-ready hardware. In addition, we recently completed a large demonstration of the mission systems suite on the B-21 where we piloted actual hardware and software in an operationally representative environment. These early test events serve to mature our hardware and software suite, which will reduce risk as we move into our flight test campaign.
We could not have done this if we did not have the experience, the laboratory and the test environments, and most importantly, the talented people in our various development sites. Last year’s demo was a great success for us. The first feedback from the fighters in this demo has been very positive, paving the way for future success in software releases on this program.
Breaking Defense: Are there other methodologies or approaches that you apply to software development?
Sullivan: As mentioned, we take advantage of model-based agile systems engineering. Agile development fits perfectly into DevStar, as the goal of agility is small, functional software versions that are gradually demonstrated and eventually combined to become larger system software versions. Agile also allows us to unite and align cross-functional stakeholders throughout the definition, development, integration, testing and delivery of B-21 capabilities. This approach helps our team quickly make informed decisions about allocating resources for feature development, technical debt reduction, or defect resolution.
Our engineers iteratively prioritize and extend the capabilities of the B-21 based on their importance to short-term program milestones versus the traditional approach to patching software feature sets years before release. This helps us continually update our priorities to deliver software that meets the ever-changing needs of combatants in a dynamic threat environment.
Breaking Defense: You mentioned how the program reduces risk before a traditional first flight by having digital representations of the B-21 “flying” in laboratory environments and in the flying test bench. How do these “flights” inform the development of the B-21 software?
Sullivan: Our investment in modeling and simulation tools brings incredible benefits to the development of B-21 software. We have already proven the maturation of the B-21’s hardware and software integration, and we continue to evolve the software based on what we learn with each “flight” of the B-21 in lab and bench environments. airborne test. When the first B-21 lines up at the end of Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale for its maiden flight, it will have mature software on board that has flown that first mission thousands of times in these environments.
Breaking Defense: What’s next for software development on the B-21 program?
Sullivan: We are proactively developing the Raider mission software. In particular, we have and will continue to run multiple demos and seize opportunities to mature the hardware and software capabilities built into early risk reduction environments. We also remain very focused on the two test planes on our production line in Palmdale, California.
In addition, the US Air Force, Northrop Grummanand vendors are building cloud infrastructure to streamline our software development, integration, testing and delivery pipeline. We are aligned with the Ministry of Defense PlatformOne team approach in this regard so as to minimize the risk of core program execution.
We’re also looking beyond the first flight to digital support for the US Air Force’s future B-21 fleet, and are already closely associated with their software support team. In addition to integrating government software engineers as technical contributors into our engineering teams in Melbourne, we have a dedicated laboratory in Melbourne for use by the Air Force. This allows government software engineers to ask questions and provide valuable feedback to make the B-21 more affordable for long-term maintenance.