Air Force Chief Information Officer: We Are Still Delivering ‘Yesterday’s Technology’

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Air Force is regarded as the most “high-tech” branch of the U.S. military. But when it comes to information-technology, the service is nowhere near the cutting edge, says Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. William Lord.
Outdated contracting methods and a “risk averse” procurement culture are keeping the Air Force generations behind the latest technology in areas such as wireless communications and mobile networking, Lord told reporters at a Nov. 2 news conference.
The Air Force acquisition bureaucracy is comfortable with the traditional “metal bending” business, but has yet to adapt to the information age, Lord says. The slow pace of military procurements, he says, is incompatible with the IT world, where technology advances in leaps and bounds.
Airmen who deploy to war zones, for instance, are stuck with technology that originated in the “ancient milspec environment,” Lord says. “They want to know why the new technology is not out in the pointy end of the spear.”
Airmen “rightfully demand” at least the same communications and networking systems that they have at home or at their offices, says Lord. On commercial flights, he says, “I can get wi-fi for $9.95 and do a video-teleconference with a laptop.” Such easy and high-speed access to the Internet is not common on military jets, he says.
Lord’s office is now reaching out the technology buyers within the Air Force to try to shake things up. “We have a great dialogue going on with the acquisition community,” he says. One proposal under consideration is to manage IT programs as if they were rapid-acquisition special projects, following the “Big Safari” approach that has been used for sensitive aircraft procurements. “We stood up an organization in San Antonio, Texas, and we’re in the process of budgeting that activity right now,” Lord says.
Keeping up with IT advances also will require contracting officers to be more flexible, and to worry about the customers’ needs just as much as they worry about pleasing the lawyers, Lord says. “As opposed to mitigating risk, we’re avoiding it.” Another barrier to modernizing IT is that the Air Force often gets locked into long-term contracts with vendors and has to wait until the contract ends before it can pursue other options. Air Force procurement officials as a rule won’t cancel a contract out of fear of costly litigation.
Lord’s office, meanwhile, has proposed ways to expedite the procurement of IT. A study was delivered three months ago to the office of the secretary of defense on how to improve IT acquisition, he says. Key to changing the current system is to be able to test technology quickly, decide what works, and buy it before it becomes obsolete. “We used to have an environment that was more open to that, when there was more [corporate research and development] money in industry,” Lord says. “There’s not so much of that anymore.”
A priority right now is to improve wireless communications services for deployed units.
“We continue to deploy second-generation wireless,” Lord says. “It goes back to the acquisition problem. We are great at delivering yesterday’s technology, tomorrow.”
Another concern for Lord is the cost of IT programs. Because the Air Force has so much “legacy” technology that is expensive to maintain, one of his near-term goals is to eliminate antiquated software. The Air Force currently has at least 19,000 software applications. If those could be cut down to 10,000, it could save the Air Force $600 million to $800 million a year.
Another money-saving move will be to consolidate data warehouses. The Air Force had considered building its own “data processing centers” about three years ago but decided it would be cheaper to outsource that service. The Defense Department’s primary provider of data centers is the Defense Information Systems Agency. But DISA prices were higher than the private sector’s, Lord says. After negotiating a lower-cost deal with DISA, the Air Force began to host many software applications on the DISA “cloud.” That could save “tens of millions of dollars a year” in personnel costs.

Topics: Infotech, Architecture, Enterprise, Service Oriented

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