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Important Observations on Pentagon IT from Arthur Herman and John Scott

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techlandingToday’s Wall Street Journal carries an opinion piece by Arthur Herman and John Scott on the state of IT procurement in the Pentagon. I’m glad they selected WSJ for this piece, since changing the Pentagon system requires awareness and action by a broad range of actors, not just those on the inside or around the DC beltway.

John is a friend known for his focused thought and disciplined writing. He is a pioneer of new concepts and a leader in the open source community. I trust his observations on just about any topic, but found this piece to be especially important.

Here is a few excerpts:

Today’s Pentagon is losing its most important battle, the one for its own future.

The problem is how the Pentagon goes about acquiring the IT and software that modern weapons systems need. If this problem doesn’t get fixed, any hope of building a 21st-century American military will be doomed.

For example, the Air Force’s Oracle ORCL -0.32% -based Expeditionary Combat Support System was supposed to be ready in October 2013. Having spent $1 billion already, it needed another $1 billion just to get to one-quarter functionality by 2020. ECCS was supposed to automate the Air Force’s management of parts and equipment. This inherent complexity of the acquisitions process effectively killed ECCS and led to the rampant cost overruns that also killed the Navy’s DDG1000 destroyer late last year.

The Pentagon acquires IT and software-based systems the way it buys aircraft carriers—as if they were physical items to be forged or welded or mass-produced. The standard procurement cycle is geared around multiyear milestones and intensive evaluation reviews that can take months or years.

The modern software development cycle, by contrast, moves in weeks, days and even hours—because software is a malleable digital item whose only limits are the human imagination.

The DOD’s current acquisition strategy hasn’t caught up or caught on. By treating software as if it were a product instead of a process, our military services are shutting themselves off from the kind of cost-efficient innovation that rules in the commercial software and IT industries. Amazon, for example, can make over 30 changes a week to its portal, from adding simple code changes to new complex features, without a major glitch. Our service personnel know this only too well, when they see how their children’s videogames work better and have more sophisticated apps than the electronic gear they have to use in the field—and at a fraction of the cost.

The Pentagon has tried to go around the problem by buying off-the-shelf software for some systems. But that only postpones the inevitable frustration when it comes time to design software that can integrate those commercial products into warfighting systems. This is what happened when the Air Force tried to create the Expeditionary Combat Support System, which ended up as a $2 billion boondoggle.

Instead, the Pentagon needs a modern software and IT acquisition process that’s as flexible, agile and open-ended as software itself—one that’s geared for Moore’s Law (computing power doubles every 18 months) and Butter’s Law (network capacity costs get halved every nine months) instead of Murphy’s Law.

For the full article see:

Send in the Tech Reinforcements: The military’s system for acquiring software is geared less for Moore’s Law than for Murphy’s.

Thanks John and Arthur for having the smarts and the courage and sense of what is right on these topics. Please keep up the great writing on this topic.

And to my many friends in DoD working IT issues, please understand pieces like this can be empowering to your activities. You know better than most that changes are needed, and your ideas on how to improve things can help drive that change.

 

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.