Part of the current gospel at the Defense Department is the notion that field commanders should have a say in procurement decisions.
Consistently, Pentagon officials have spoken about their desire to make the procurement bureaucracy more responsive to the needs of combatant commanders, and several independent studies and commissions have agreed this is a good idea.
Since the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the Pentagon’s equipment buys have fulfilled critical battlefield needs. But there are several areas where the Pentagon so far has failed to deliver. Most of these, according to senior officials, involve information technologies.
Combatant commanders cite network-centric operations, command-and-control, intelligence and surveillance as “problem areas” that require substantial improvements in technology, says Army Maj. Gen. Michael A. Vane, vice director for force structure on the Joint Staff. The military services have done a pretty good job in providing “traditional systems,” Vane says. “But they need to work on these other areas.”
It may seem counterintuitive that the Defense Department spends more than $30 billion a year on information technologies and still is not able to satisfy the needs of frontline commanders.
The reality is far more complex than that, however.
As much as the Defense Department has successfully exploited the advances in the commercial IT sector and has deployed improved communications systems, programs frequently have been slowed by red tape and poor management.
John G. Grimes, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, recently offered a mix of good and bad news that explains why the Pentagon continues to stumble in the information technology arena.
He cited as major setbacks two multibillion-dollar programs — a next-generation constellation of communications satellites, called transformation satellites, and a new family of software radios, known as the joint tactical radio system. “Our reputation is going to hell in a hand-basket” because of these setbacks, laments Grimes in remarks to an industry conference that was hosted by Input, a market intelligence firm in Reston, Va.
“I don’t blame industry for all the problems,” Grimes cautions. “But we have 13 space programs … over cost, over schedule — and we lost our credibility with both committees on both sides of the aisle.” Both the transformation satellites and the joint tactical radio programs have seen their funding chopped substantially in the past two years.
“That’s what I’m up against,” says Grimes.
Other programs to develop a “global information grid” and to provide network enterprise services for defense civilians and military organizations also have hit serious bumps. Industry bids soon will be evaluated for a major effort to provide instant access to information, from any source, to all Defense Department agencies.
Not only are these programs technically challenging, says Grimes, but they also are attracting additional layers of oversight — from the Defense Department’s inspector general. This is not welcome news to Grimes. “The new wrinkle in town is that the IG wants to get into the procurement cycle,” Grimes says. “They think they are smarter than we are.”
The frustration expressed by Grimes is not just about the prospect of additional scrutiny, but also about whether the increased oversight may end up causing more delays in getting these technologies to the users. A spokesman for Grimes says that, “reviews earlier in the acquisition cycle have the potential to delay critical decisions points in the acquisition process.”
A Pentagon IG spokesman notes the inspector general’s office usually reviews and audits about 50 defense programs every year. IG procurement specialists generally “spot” programs that they believe require more supervision.
An industry source says this is part of a broader effort by the IG to address endemic problems in defense procurement. “It seems the IG has taken to monthly issue sessions with key department leaders as a part of an ongoing process.”
Grimes, who came to the Pentagon after a long career in the defense industry, says the government is long overdue for an infusion of new thinking in how it advances technology. That requires going outside the usual cadre of suppliers.
“I don’t want to talk to the defense industry I used to work for,” says Grimes. Defense contractors are good at “integrating things,” but they don’t come up with breakthrough ideas. “We are looking for the next generation,” says Grimes. “In the global information grid, I’m looking five-10 years out … I’m looking for ideas on how we do this — support net-centric enterprise services and the GIG.”
The revolving door between the Pentagon and industry is one of the reasons why contractors don’t generate the innovation Grimes wants. “You guys are hiring me, and the military, and I’m getting the same ideas back, and we are not looking out,” he says. A lack of imaginative thinking, he adds, “is concerning me.”
At companies like Google or Netscape, he says, “if they have a new idea and it can’t be integrated in six to nine months, they kill the program. We keep it around for 10 years and don’t make it work.
“I’m looking to infuse new ideas. One way to do this is to get a different type of people involved,” says Grimes.
More likely than not, it will be a long time before the combatant commanders see quantum leaps in technology.
Megan Gamse, an industry analyst at Input, says that, historically, the Defense Department has struggled to incorporate innovation into IT programs. “We are taking steps in the right direction to try to get these IT services. But I think that there’s a lot of work to be done.”