Tech Industry Warns Defense Policies Threaten to Stifle Innovation
Most of the products that the military needs exist in the commercial IT sector, and technologies such as mobile and cloud computing are advancing rapidly. But the culture of government, which puts secrecy ahead of sharing, is incompatible with commercial practices, said John M. Custer, a retired Army major general and director of federal strategic missions and programs at EMC Corp.
“Sharing is a dirty word to many people,” especially inside the Beltway, Custer said at an IT industry conference in Arlington, Va., hosted by Thermopylae Sciences and Technology.
The technology world is moving to cloud and mobile, where sharing is paramount, Custer said. As a senior officer at U.S. Central Command in 2006, Custer was overseeing information systems and was struck by the difficulties in sharing data with allied commanders. The CENTCOM commander at the time, Army Gen. John Abizaid, wrote a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking for permission to let seven British generals access the SIPRNet (secure Internet protocol router network), which is restricted to users with secret security clearances. The request was declined, Custer recalled. “The answer we got was, ‘spend a couple million dollars and build a SIPRNet light. Populate this new network so the British officers will have the same information that is on the SIPRNet.”
That response captures the challenges faced by military commanders in the field who must work with partners and be able to exchange data, Custer said. “Policy and sharing are two different worlds,” he added. “There are many more people who worry about over sharing than under sharing.”
The way it typically works, he said, the operators in the field want to share, while the policy makers inhibit. “That's not universal, but it's been the paradigm,” he said. “It has dramatically changed over the past decade, but there are still a great deal of organizations that own a lot of information they don't want to share.”
A.J. Clark, CEO of Thermopylae, said there are pockets of innovation in the military, although the Pentagon is still not able to fully take advantage of what commercial industry can offer. One of his company’s clients, U.S. Southern Command, has adjusted its intelligence operations so that more information can be shared with Latin American military allies and civilian partners in areas such as humanitarian relief, counternarcotics and human trafficking detection, said Clark. The military excels at traditional intelligence collection methods such as overhead imagery and airborne electronic warfare. But being good at flying airplanes and launching satellites is not enough anymore, Clark said. “What we have is Google and social networks,” he said. “How are we turning that advance in technology the United States is good at against our adversaries? It's lagging a little bit.”
The intelligence community, he said, is starting to see the scope and quality of real-time information that is available out there on unclassified networks. The next step is figuring out how to take this information and start aggregating it, he said. SOUTHCOM already is moving in that direction.
The latest Google cloud products are better, in terms of security, than what many government agencies have, Clark said. The challenge for the government is that, to make the best use of commercial cloud systems, it has to decide what information needs to be secure or classified, instead of trying to protect everything. After the latest wave of federal budget cuts, the government might not be able to afford to build its own clouds and will have to increasingly rely on much less expensive commercial alternatives, he said.
Companies such as Google fiercely protect their intellectual property and have invested billions of dollars in secure clouds. There is no logical reason why the government could not take advantage of this technology, said Michele Weslander-Quaid, chief technology officer at Google Federal. “From a policy perspective, the government has to catch up with best practices,” she said.
Saving money is one motivation to adopt commercial technologies. But there is another, arguably more significant reason, said Clark, which is the need to retain skilled programmers and software engineers. His company specializes in Web-based geospatial systems, mobile software applications and cloud computing. This sector is seeing a government “brain drain,” primarily of people under 30 who regard government contracting work as a hindrance to their careers and are opting for new opportunities in the commercial world, said Clark. “They expect cloud and API [application programming interface],” he said. “In our company we struggle to continue to bring a level of excellence inside the Beltway that is equivalent to what Google and Amazon have.” Retaining the best talent is a daily battle, he said. “We constantly have to encourage our developers, ‘It's OK, don't get frustrated, the government is getting there. Don't fret because they don't have any APIs.’”
Clark sees this is a worrisome trend. “What I have seen is a brain drain from this city,” he said. “Folks from MIT and Carnegie Mellon, with security clearances, are leaving for startups in Silicon Valley. They don't care if they lose their clearance. They don't want to work in this space again. It's not creative,” said Clark. “We are bankrupting ourselves and not creating technical depth for the future,” he said. “It's important for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community to ensure the next generation of developers stay interested in this mission.”
Thermopylae is one of many companies that is seeking to grow its defense business by offering commercial products that can be customized for government use. The geospatial imagery is a “fantastic market,” said John Isaac Clark, the company’s chief innovation officer. One of the newest products, called Google Liquid Galaxy, takes generic Google Earth and mapping data and creates an immersive dome-like digital environment that can be used to plan military operations or track drones flying over a battlefield. It can be set up for under $10,000, compared to traditional military “caves” that might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Air Force set up a system like this to monitor U-2 spy aircraft surveillance missions. “A user in the field with a laptop talks to the bird and sees what it sees,” he said.
The government has an opportunity to save billions of dollars over time simply by transitioning legacy geo-intelligence systems to commercial technology, John Clark said. “The intelligence community is over saturated with tools that bring duplication and force users to have to understand eight different ways to interact and do the same job function.” Google is not cheap, but it brings efficiency, he said. “It's one common way we all know how to look at geo data. Why pay for others?” And when analysts receive new imagery, it should not have to be copied to eight separate workstations. That adds up to huge operations and sustainment cost.”
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