IT experts, former leaders say DOD behind with advanced tech

A panel of IT experts and former high-level military officials said acquisition red tape slows DOD’s ability to acquire cutting edge technology.

Congress has tried for years to pass legislation to make the Pentagon a smarter buyer of technology. So when members of the House Armed Services Committee met recently with Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, what they heard gave them pause.

Schmidt, who is also the head of a panel of Pentagon advisers known as the Defense Innovation Board, has been beating the drum about the widening gap between the military’s information systems and those of the private sector. The discussion was “provoking,” said Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who chairs the HASC subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. And it prompted her to convene a hearing last week with three recently departed senior Pentagon officials.

The questions focused on how can the Pentagon spend $30 billion a year on IT and yet, barely make a dent in modernizing decades-old information networks and systems? And what will it take to turn things around?

These are issues that continue to baffle lawmakers, especially those from committees that have focused on government procurement reforms. “Management and acquisition of information technology at the Department of Defense is one of the most challenging and pressing organizational and administrative issues facing us today,” said the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat Rep. Jim Langevin.

Former Defense Department CIO Terry Halvorsen said he finds it alarming that the Pentagon continues to deliver “legacy solutions” at a time of exploding technology growth in the private sector. Despite repeated attempts by previous administrations and Congress to change antiquated buying methods, the Pentagon is perfectly comfortable “dictating a series of technical requirements that will be outdated the day we publish them,” said Halvorsen, who is now an executive at technology giant Samsung. “DOD needs a better understanding of the commercial environment,” he told the subcommittee.

Halverson suggested Congress should eliminate rules that “don't make any sense and limit the ability for DOD and other government agencies to function correctly.” Requirements to test and certify commercial products are one reason why modernization has been difficult, he said. “The security accreditation process is costing both the government and industry lots of money and doing a disservice to our service members for how long it takes to get those products certified. We insist on testing stuff that commercially has been accepted and tested in industry.”

It is not news to industry watchers that defense IT procurement has been in a state of dysfunction. Many reform proposals have been put forth but little ever changes. HASC members pressed the former Pentagon officials for fresh ideas.

“I think we unintentionally have been building for a long time a culture of distrust and one that was based on over-regulation,” said Halvorsen.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Developmental Test and Evaluation Ed Greer noted that in 2013, the emerging threats subcommittee hosted a roundtable discussion on IT acquisition reform. “And it seems like the same challenges and the same issues were discussed three or four years ago.”

Langevin asked point blank: What can Congress and the administration do now to speed up the modernization of IT?

One thing they could do is give Pentagon managers more discretion to buy products, at least to try them out, without having to navigate the procurement gauntlet, said Halvorsen. As CIO, he noted, “I had a $37 billion budget. I had to approve that budget, write that budget, yet I couldn't authorize directly a million dollars if I saw a great technology to put right on the table.”

When government officials spot that “great technology” — that meets an urgent military need — they should be able to waive some of the more burdensome regulations, such as a mandate that vendors have to be competitively selected, he said. “I think that would really drive some rapid acquisition quickly.”

Greer said the contracting process is, “In my mind, a major impediment whether it's acquisition of weapon systems or IT systems.” Even contracts for simple items are bogged down in regulatory red tape and an accumulation of requirements issued by the Pentagon, the military services and Congress. He suggested Congress start a “zero based review of all of the contracting policies.”

 As things stand today, defense contracting continues to get more, not less, complex.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, President Trump signed a “Buy America” executive order intended to crack down on government purchases of non-U.S. made equipment. This throws a wrench in IT procurement as most of the industry’s microelectronics manufacturing takes place outside the United States.

“It has always been a concern in the acquisition community that if you have Buy America provisions that become too restrictive, it will limit our ability to get the best weapons systems,” said former Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine.

Halvorsen cautioned that IT buyers worry about Chinese products that may come loaded with malware and vendors whose supply chains cannot be fully vetted. But that should not preclude access to foreign suppliers from friendly nations, he said. Maybe the policy should be changed to “Buy American and Allied.”

Levine agreed. There's a difference between worrying about supply chain cybersecurity in “countries of concern” and saying that “all countries are off the table.”

Where this debate goes from here is up to Congress at this point, as many Pentagon leadership posts remain unfilled and a forthcoming reorganization of the acquisition office could delay policy decisions for months or years.

HASC members, however, will keep digging into procurement issues as the committee starts drafting the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, said Stefanik.

Some proposed changes could come from the so-called “section 809 panel,” created by Congress in the 2016 NDAA “to streamline and improve” military procurement.

The panel’s chair Deidre “Dee” Lee, who spent decades in the procurement trenches, said the group was given free rein by Congress to propose “bold” actions. They will be weeding through the federal acquisition regulations, and figure out ways to simplify the buying process with the goal to give Pentagon buyers easier access to the technology from the open market.

A preview of what the panel might do should be made public in 30 to 60 days. Congress wants a final proposal by August 2018.

In a recent interview, Lee said procurement reforms in the past only provided “broad generic recommendations” that nobody knew how to implement. “Improve competition. Improve the acquisition workforce. Ok, what does that mean? And what law needs to be changed? What regulations need to be changed? What training needs to happen?”

The “simplification of purchases” is a central goal of the 809 panel. That could mean giving the Pentagon broader authorities to buy equipment like the rest of the world, from the open market with a credit card. One problem is that the current acquisition system treats $1 million contracts the same as $1 billion contracts.

Lee says the group is not afraid to wade into issues that may upset Congress such as third-rail socioeconomic policies in federal contracting — mandatory set-asides for disadvantaged, veterans- or women-owned small businesses. “Why does it have to be 23 percent?” Lee asked of the Pentagon mandate for small business contracts. If the Pentagon’s mission is to find the most innovative technologies for the armed forces, why does it matter where they come from?

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.