‘Milspec’ Technology Makes a Comeback

By Sandra I. Erwin
A rising propensity to “militarize” the Defense Department’s information networks will be making it more difficult for the Pentagon to take advantage of cutting-edge technologies from the commercial sector, say analysts and industry experts.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Pentagon came under huge pressure to cut costs and expedite the design and deployment of new technologies by relying on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. The conventional wisdom was that the private sector already was spending billions of research-and-development dollars on new technologies and the Pentagon should capitalize on those private-sector investments.

The 1990s also saw a move to cut back on the use of military specifications — or “milspecs” — in areas where commercial technology was available. Although milspecs were necessary in the design of specialized military gear such as tanks or submarines, Pentagon officials concluded that it was wasteful to spend billions of dollars on overdesigned custom products if there were comparable systems already available in the private sector. At the time, the Defense Department was trying to live down the infamous milspec-compliant $400 hammers and $800 toilet seats. 

The pendulum began to swing in the other direction after the 9/11 attacks and the start of the U.S. war on terrorism. The appetite for cheaper off-the-shelf technologies somewhat diminished as the emphasis shifted to security at all costs. The enormous increases to the Pentagon’s budget also removed the incentives to seek lower cost technologies.

Although many of the Pentagon’s major acquisition projects employ commercial technologies, industry forecasts point to an expansion of milspecs in military systems, particularly in the areas of information technologies, command-and-control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Collectively, these systems account for more than $80 billion in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2009 budget.

This market appears to be heading toward “increased militarization, customization and systems integration,” says a recent study by the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association.

Fear of intruders and hackers has reached new heights in recent months and also gives Pentagon buyers more reasons to distrust technologies that were not customized to military specifications.
“The cyber problem is one of the reasons why the Defense Department won’t take off-the-shelf technology … It won’t meet the National Security Agency certification,” says Tim LaFleur, a retired Navy vice admiral who is now an industry consultant.

The Navy’s multibillion-dollar programs to deploy information systems aboard ships and ashore illustrate the shift to customization. Navy officials have often stressed that the goal is to acquire commercial off-the-shelf “enterprise” technologies but contractors have found that in reality most of the hardware and software applications require some level of military-unique designs.

“Just about every application needs some form of customization, especially for security,” says Patricia Tracey, a retired Navy vice admiral and vice president of EDS Corp. The company is the prime contractor for the Navy-Marine Corps information network known as NMCI. The Navy is now seeking to move to the next generation of NMCI. The technical specifications will be far more demanding because the Navy wants systems that have “multi-level” security so it can selectively share information with other navies or civilian agencies. Vendors often are surprised by how much more complex the hardware and software requirements are than what they had envisioned, Tracey says.

Brian Roach, who oversees government programs at Microsoft Corp., says the Defense Department for years was a leader in the use of commercial off-the-shelf systems, or COTS. “In some regards they’ve done a good job,” he says. But the Defense Department has evolved to the point where it can now discriminately use COTS and also build its own applications, Roach says. “It’s an interesting nexus that is occurring today.”

The Pentagon, however, is unlikely to participate in the latest boom in information technologies known as Web 2.0. These technologies have revolutionized the business world by making it possible to have collaborative networks and virtual communities, at extremely low costs. But practically none of the Web 2.0 applications can be integrated into the Defense Department networks because they are not encrypted. The Pentagon wants applications that reside “inside the firewall,” says Roach.

One of the most wildly successful Web 2.0 technologies are applications that are used for “customer relationship management,” such as Salesforce.com. Organizations can create online communities where members can post and discuss ideas, and managers are able to prioritize and manage feedback. Some military agencies such as recruiting organizations could use these applications to create virtual communities with potential recruits. Army depots also could employ similar software to manage inventories. But vendors have found that the military’s security fears often trump the enthusiasm for Web 2.0 technologies.

In recent months, Army officials have spoken publicly about the difficulties of providing soldiers with basic access to phone and text messaging. Thousands of teenagers who join the Army every year find that they can no longer enjoy the privileges of texting and twittering on their cellphones. The Army has yet to come up with an acceptable “secure” device that is affordable enough so every soldier can get voice, text and streaming video while deployed.

John J. Young Jr., the Pentagon’s chief acquisitions officer, says there are too many obstacles to the adoption of commercial technologies at the Defense Department.

Most of the frustrations result from false expectations about what it means to buy off-the-shelf technologies. Young cited the much-criticized military personnel management network. It originally was intended to be a commercial human-resources management system by PeopleSoft, which is used by hundreds of corporations. The project immediately hit roadblocks because each of the military services wanted modifications made to the system to suit their individual needs.

“It’s getting better,” says Young. “We had to deal with a tough cultural problem.” The lesson from that program is that “it is not a COTS solution if you customize it to your business practices,” he says.

 “The Defense Department is still struggling with that.” The persistent practice of asking vendors to modify systems is “one of the biggest impediments to the use of commercial information technology,” Young says.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Infotech

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