Military can't buy IT fast enough

Top military leaders blame bureaucracy and acquisition rules geared to weapons systems

Information technology advances much faster than the Defense Department’s cumbersome acquisition process can buy it. Senior military officials said last week the situation leaves forces on the front lines today with yesterday’s IT.

Brig. Gen. George Allen, director of command, control, communications and computers for the Marine Corps, said out-of-date acquisition rules and delays in getting the latest IT products have frustrated forces in the field. His organization wrestled with those problems in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 while it tried to install the Marines’ largest communications and data network.

The project’s managers had to use the latest available technologies “from an acquisition point of view, but which, in fact, were four years old,” Allen said, speaking on a panel at the LandWarNet conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Lawmakers are trying to address those acquisitions challenges in both versions of the Fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill. The House wants to establish a test program, the Rapid Commercial Information Technology Identification Demonstration Pilot, to find ways to quickly identify and buy commercial IT products.

The Senate measure would require DOD acquisition and IT officials to review policies related to performance metrics and the suitability of acquisition regulations for acquiring quickly changing technology.
The House passed its version of the bill, but the full Senate has not voted on its measure.

Although lawmakers hope to move IT to the field faster, some military officials said bureaucracy is as much a source of acquisition problems as are regulations.

“One of the biggest challenges within the Department of Defense is ourselves and the [Federal Acquisition Regulation],” Allen said. Those buying procedures were created for weapons systems and computing platforms, not networks and routers, he said.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, director the Defense Information Systems Agency, agreed that a major source of military IT acquisition problems is the long, linear procurement process. The military has a need for “reducing the complexity of our own processes and for more trust,” Croom said.

Some officials said trust is a deep-seated issue within DOD and might be rooted well below what the legislation’s provisions and programs can touch. The culture within DOD and civilian agencies has little tolerance for risks gone awry, said Ron Kadish, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton who is a retired Air Force lieutenant general.

“They bayonet the wounded,” Kadish said. He said he could not remember the last time an employee received a reward for taking a risk and was not condemned if it ended in failure. “It’s a mind-set,” he said.

Industry has urged Congress to make acquisition changes. The IT Association of America continues to lobby lawmakers about speeding the procurement process. Trey Hodgkins, the trade group’s vice president of federal government programs, said the military uses IT as a weapons system on a par with airplanes and tanks. Most weapons systems, however, can handle the usual five years between updates, he said.

“Most IT would refresh three times in that window,” he added.

Kash is editor in chief of Government Computer News, Federal Computer Week’s sister publication.

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