Unlock Ada's grip on DOD, report urges
The Defense Department should stop requiring that all the software it develops be
written in Ada, a National Research Council study commissioned by the Pentagon has
DOD should stick with the Ada mandate for warfighting software but let developers of
commercial-style military applications use other languages, according to the report by a
committee of the research council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board.
Emmett Paige Jr., assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, computers and
intelligence, requested the study as part of a broader review of DOD policies on
programming languages. A DOD spokeswoman said Paige and his principal director for
information management, Cynthia Rand, are considering what action to take now.
During his tenure at DOD, Paige has never vacillated on the department's Ada mandatory
use requirement. But neither he nor any other Pentagon official has cracked down on
software developers who chose other languages without obtaining the required waiver.
A statement from the department described the recommendations in Ada and Beyond:
Software Policies for the Department of Defense as "thoughtful" and added:
"We are certain that we have to better define the term "warfighting
systems," but we know the intent of the study team and will do our best to proceed as
If the recommendations are adopted, the "warfighting" label would apply to a
narrow spectrum of applications.
Within the category of warfighting systems, the NRC committee included applications
such as weapons guidance and control, detection and identification of aircraft, radar
signal processing and battlefield communications. But it excluded many military support
systems, including logistics, asset tracking and maintenance systems, administration of
aircraft carriers, training and simulation, and off-line analysis of battlefield data.
The study committee was headed by software expert Barry Boehm, now of the University of
Southern California. It included representatives of Ada vendors and defense contractors,
plus other academicians, but no military representatives.
Among its other findings and recommendations:
"Compared with other programming languages, Ada provides DOD with higher-quality
warfighting software at a lower life-cycle cost," said the committee's report, issued
Oct. 31 in draft form.
But it laid to rest the notion, long promoted by Ada advocates, that there is a rosy
future for the language. "It is unlikely that the use of Ada, including the recent
Ada 95 version, will grow significantly beyond the DOD-dominated niche where it is already
strong," the report said.
Ada was developed under Pentagon sponsorship in the 1970s as a single general-purpose
programming language that would be easy to support. Since Ada became mandatory, the report
said, the number of languages in use in Defense systems has declined.
Market forces, however, played a role in this trend, it said. The report said C is the
second most widely used language in DOD, although it never has been on the Pentagon's list
of approved languages.
Ada should be required in large and critical warfighting systems or subsystems when DOD
will drive the maintenance of the software and when there is no better commercial or
fourth-generation language alternative, the committee recommended. "If existing
software or higher-level language solutions are suitable, new development solely to
promote Ada should not be required," it said. If use of another language can be
cost-justified, it added, then Ada need not be used.
"Using Ada benefits DOD mainly because of the language's orientation toward
reliability," the report said. "Ada is ahead of languages such as C and C++ in
that it provides strong support for compile-time and run-time consistency checking."
The report was greeted by complaints from some Ada vendors who seemed concerned at the
prospect of less business. For example, Ralph Crafts, vice president of OC Systems Inc.,
Fairfax, Va., called the report "a public relations/publicity disaster for the Ada
community." In a posting on the Internet, Crafts predicted resumption of the
proliferation of programming languages at DOD.