- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Haley Parsons
Best Defense guest columnist
A recent panel discussion on military IT acquisition, held at the Brookings Institution, was creatively titled "Moore’s Law Goes to War: How Can the Department of Defense Keep Pace With Changes in IT?" as a nod to Gordon Moore’s observation that computing power doubles roughly once every two years. The panel was moderated by Ian Wallace, visiting Fellow in Cybersecurity at Brookings and a former cybersecurity official at the British Ministry of Defence. Wallace emphasized the DoD’s difficulty in keeping pace with the breakneck speed of IT development by explaining that, in 1997, the world’s fastest supercomputer was created by Sandia National Laboratories to model nuclear weapons. A mere nine years later, another computer with the same speed was released to the general public: The Playstation 3.
Jon Etherton, president and owner of Etherton and Associates, Inc. and former staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that acquisition reform in Congress and the DoD tends to run in a ten to twelve-year cycle. Mr. Etherton emphasized that there is an emerging consensus in all areas of government that IT acquisition reform is a stand-alone issue. He said that with the recent budget cutbacks, there continued to be a discussion on the Hill of scrutinizing recent legislation, such as Section 804 of the Defense Authorization Act, and said that he believed the Congressional committees are "not fully satisfied that the Department has answered the mail" on the issue of IT conceptualization of acquisition.
Echoing Mr. Etherton’s idea that acquisition reform ebbs and flows on a cycle was Tom Sisti, senior director and chief legislative counsel in the Washington office for SAP America. He referred to the process as "procurement groundhog day" whereby the government runs into the same set of problems that promote the same types of recommendations and the same types of reform efforts, such as DoD reliance on commercial items where possible, implementing key successful business processes, and creating a trained and sustained acquisition workforce. Mr. Sisti ended his initial time with the cryptic statement that "There are issues we don’t confront and maybe we need to open the door to confronting them, or at least asking the questions."
Jacques Gansler, a chair in public policy and private enterprise at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and a previous undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, was more than willing to open that door himself. Dr. Gansler, who candidly stated that he was "asked not to give too many complaints but will do it anyway", articulated some of the issues not mentioned by other speakers while commenting on the idea of a cyclic military acquisition reform process. But Dr. Gansler said that what "looks like an eighteen-year-cycle" is actually driven by exogenous variables and is not likely to come back unless there is "another 9/11 or Pearl Harbor". He said that in the last few decades there have been periods of dramatic decline in defense spending after the major wars, and the same three areas get unfunded: research, training, and conferences. Dr. Gansler referred to this as "giving up the future for the present so you can buy more tanks, planes, and ships" and not recognizing that the United States’ national security strategy includes maintaining technological superiority over its adversaries. He stated that the tech industry is now globalized and America’s adversaries are better-equipped than ever, so it is impossible to maintain global technological leadership with no research investments.
While the Congressional committees may not believe that the DoD has "answered the mail" on the issues of IT conceptualization and acquisition, according to Mr. Etherton, Andrew Hunter, executive secretary of the Warfighter Senior Integration Group and director of the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, asserted that the Department of Defense was committed to acquisition reform. He stated that it "has the daily attention of DoD senior leadership" and that they are dedicated to acquisition and improving the process. Countering Dr. Gansler, Mr. Hunter said that senior leadership understands that technological superiority is part of the United States’ national security strategy and understands that the performance of the acquisition system is critical to the DoD’s future.
Taking an optimistic, opportunistic view of budget constraints and rapid IT development was Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF, an expert in the field of rapid IT acquisition. He said that "innovation doesn’t have to cost so much, take so long, and be so complicated". To illustrate his point, Lt. Col. Ward brought the panel back to the Playstation 3 by discussing the Condor Cluster, built by the Air Force in 2010. At the time it was the fastest supercomputer in the Department of Defense, was built for 1/10th the cost and used 1/10the electricity of a comparable supercomputer. The cluster was built out of 1,760 Playstation 3s.
"You would never cobble a bunch of PS3s together if you had a lot of time and money on your hands," Ward stated, going on to say that "There are benefits to living in an age of austerity where time and money are constrained. It acts as a forcing function for creativity."