Fast Facts

Like anyone who owns a computer or smartphone, the Department of Defense has to continually update the software that keeps its weapon systems running smoothly. Sustaining that software for systems including aircraft, ships, submarines, and missiles, is essential for national defense.

The cost of sustaining DOD's weapon system software is estimated to be at least $15 billion over the next 5 years, but DOD may not know the full costs. Some of DOD's systems have incomplete cost data, which could make it harder to ensure that DOD has the necessary resources available.

We made 5 recommendations to help DOD address cost and data challenges.

A U.S. Military Servicemember Using a Computer on a Reconnaissance Vehicle

Photograph of a man in a military uniform using a computer that is mounted on the wall of a small space.

Photograph of a man in a military uniform using a computer that is mounted on the wall of a small space.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has policies and organizations to manage the sustainment of operational system software. DOD policy defines software sustainment and software maintenance activities synonymously, to comprise any activities or actions that change the software baseline, as well as modifications or upgrades that add capability or functionality. One example of such an action is the Air Force's modifying the security software on the B-52 bomber to better protect against attempted system penetration. The figure below defines the four categories of software sustainment actions.

The Four Categories of Software Sustainment Actions

The Four Categories of Software Sustainment Actions

DOD policies on life-cycle management of weapon systems address software sustainment, and several DOD organizations—including DOD software centers—play key roles in overseeing and managing software sustainment. DOD policy includes software maintenance as part of core logistics, and it requires the military departments to report biennially to Congress on their estimated workloads to sustain core logistics capabilities, including estimated costs of these workloads. However, while the Army and Air Force categorize and report software sustainment as part of core logistics, the Navy does not. Without the Navy's categorizing and reporting its software sustainment costs, DOD and Congress are not fully informed of the magnitude and cost of core software sustainment capability requirements. This impedes DOD's efforts to plan for a ready and controlled source of technical competence, and to budget resources in peacetime while preserving necessary surge capabilities.

DOD's ability to track weapon system software sustainment costs is impeded by limitations in its collection of software cost data. First, GAO found that the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation's (CAPE) Cost and Software Data Reporting system did not collect weapon system cost data from DOD software centers. Recognizing this, CAPE directed in January 2017 that cost and software data efforts on major acquisition programs should begin to be collected from government organizations, including DOD software centers. However, CAPE acknowledges that it lacks an implementation plan to execute and monitor the requirement for these centers to submit cost and software data. Second, GAO also found that the military departments' operating and support cost systems have incomplete software sustainment cost data. DOD policy requires the military departments to collect and maintain actual operating and support costs, including software sustainment costs. Without CAPE's taking steps to prioritize obtaining complete information on operating and support costs for software sustainment, CAPE is challenged in its ability to accurately compile total program costs or provide reliable life-cycle cost estimates to DOD and Congress.

Why GAO Did This Study

Software is integral to the operation and functionality of DOD equipment, platforms, and weapon systems, including tactical and combat vehicles, aircraft, ships, submarines, and strategic missiles. DOD estimates that software sustainment funding will total at least $15 billion over the next 5 fiscal years. DOD carries out software sustainment at various locations, where DOD uses its maintenance capabilities to maintain, overhaul, and repair its military weapon systems.

GAO was asked to review several issues relating to the sustainment of operational system software for DOD weapon systems. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which (1) DOD has policies and organizations in place to manage the sustainment of operational system software for weapon systems; and (2) DOD and the military departments track costs to sustain weapon system software. GAO reviewed DOD policies and procedures and interviewed cognizant officials from select DOD software centers, among others, who perform weapon system software sustainment activities.

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Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations, including that (1) the Navy categorize and report its software sustainment costs in accordance with DOD policy; and (2) CAPE improve the collection of weapon system software cost data. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Navy We recommend that the Secretary of the Navy categorize and report the Navy's software sustainment costs, in accordance with DOD policy on the Depot Maintenance Core Capabilities Determination Process. [Recommendation 1]
Open
The PAO reported that OSD has established a cross-Service team to develop a framework for accounting and reporting core requirements and capabilities specific to weapon system software that recognizes Service-unique attributes, and is applicable across all of DoD. When developed, the framework will clarify how to identify software sustainment costs, and data sources in accordance with DOD policy. DOD has reported an Estimated Completion Date for this action of July 1, 2021. As of August 2021, DOD records showed this action was incomplete but an official in WHS responsible for recommendation follow-up contacted the action officer to inquire about progress. When we confirm what additional actions DOD has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense We recommend that the Secretary of Defense ensure that the Director for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation complete its evaluation and select the most effective system to obtain cost and software data from DOD software centers, and develop an implementation plan that includes time frames for key milestones to execute and monitor the centers' submission of required data. [Recommendation 2]
Open
PAO reported contacting the office of the Director for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation and provided a template for reporting progress implementing recommendations 2 and 4 with a suspense of 31 July 2020. In August 2021, a WHS official contacted the OSD contact to inquire about the status. When we confirm what actions DOD has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense We recommend that the Secretary of Defense ensure that the Director for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation takes steps to prioritize the respective military departments' obtaining and reporting of complete operating and support costs for software sustainment through its Visibility and Management of Operating and Support Costs systems. [Recommendation 3]
Open
PAO reported contacting the office of the Director for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation and provided a template for reporting progress implementing this recommendation with a suspense of 31 July 2020. When we confirm what actions DOD has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information. As of September 23, 2021, DOD officials told us they are working to provide the requested information and will do so soon.
Department of Defense We recommend that the Secretary of Defense develop an implementation plan with time frames for key milestones for establishing a cadre of intellectual property experts. [Recommendation 4]
Closed - Implemented
DOD issued Instruction 5010.44,, "Intellectual Property (IP) Acquisition and Licensing," on October 16, 2019. Among other provisions, the instruction established an intellectual property cadre as of the date of the instruction. This action satisfies our recommendation.
Department of Defense We recommend that the Secretary of Defense submit a report, as required by law, to Congress about the study on access to intellectual property for weapon system sustainment conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, along with a description of any actions that the Secretary proposes, or may take, to revise or clarify regulations related to intellectual property rights. [Recommendation 5]
Closed - Implemented
The Secretary of Defense submitted a report to Congress on February 3, 2019. This report stated that DOD generally agreed with the recommendations of the study on access to intellectual property for weapon system sustainment (the "875 report." conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, and described several steps that it planned to take to implement the study's key recommendations. Submission of this report to Congress -- while the draft of GAO-19-173 was at DOD for comment -- satisfies the intent of our recommendation.

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