Defense, Intelligence Agencies Struggle to Unify Data Networks (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin

It is an article of faith among military strategists that information wins wars. This dogma, however, often collides with the reality that military information systems resemble the Tower of Babel.

Incompatible data for years has been the bane of war commanders and intelligence analysts. Although the military collectively spends billions of dollars on sophisticated intelligence and information systems, each agency buys independently of each other, which results in a collection of networks whose data cannot be easily shared across the entire defense community.

Fixing this problem is key to future U.S. military dominance, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh.

“The future for us is figuring out how to integrate data, how to better integrate information, how to move it quicker, how to connect platforms and sensors together,” he said. “That’s not as expensive as new weapons systems, and it benefits us in the way we do the job today.”

Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers decided to tackle the issue soon after taking the job in 2010. The following year he introduced the “defense intelligence information enterprise,” or DI2E, which is a concept on how to build the intelligence analyst’s Holy Grail: A Google-like search engine that can tap into disparate sources of data and draw from the massive wealth of information resources that exist across the Defense Department and intelligence community.

Vickers’ initiative is viewed as a promising first step toward standardized data. But industry experts caution that much more has to be done to reform an entrenched culture that does not reward information sharing.

“DI2E is supposed to unify families of systems,” said Vincent R. Snyder, a retired Air Force colonel and vice president of The SI Organization, a Virginia-based company that works with intelligence agencies. The biggest obstacle is the way the military services manage their budgets for information technology, Snyder said. “Today, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps fund their IT programs independently,” Snyder said. “They share standards but the requirements and acquisition process are driven by the services.” Another impediment is that many defense systems are built with contractors’ proprietary software.

The goal of DI2E, he said, is to create incentives for the services and industry to collaborate. But nobody can predict when that will happen. It has been at least 15 years since the Defense Department first sought to become “network centric” and became aware of the interoperability problems.

“The government has been talking about doing this since 1998,” when Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski introduced the idea of “network centric warfare,” recalled Chris Gunderson, a research associate at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Since then, similar catchphrases have come in and out of vogue at the Pentagon, all aimed at the same goal of integrated information: The Global Information Grid, Navy Force Net, Net-Centric Enterprise Services and now DI2E.

Defense officials show up to speak at industry conferences every year about these initiatives and yet, it is clear that the government is “not achieving these objectives,” said Gunderson. “I have seen no big breakthroughs since 1998 that would make me think that next year the government is going to have a big epiphany and start doing things differently.”

The military services have in recent years focused on improving their intelligence-processing computers and software, known as the distributed common ground system, or DCGS. Their goal is to make the data more compatible across different organizations. DCGS takes data that are collected from sensors such as satellites and drones — video, photos, maps and text documents — and analyzes and distributes the information based on commanders’ needs.

When DCGS was first conceived in the 1990s, it was during the heyday of “jointness,” when the Pentagon was under pressure to consolidate programs that the services traditionally built separately. Every service, intelligence agency and Special Operations Command has its own version of DCGS. They share an “integration backbone,” but data often is not transferable from one to the other.

“The government has struggled for years to get these organizations to build interoperable systems,” said Gunderson. The fact that they have separate budgets and are only accountable for their own unique requirements leaves little incentive to collaborate, he said.

Therein lies the challenge for DI2E, he said. “It’s a concept,” while DCGS is a “program of record” with billions of dollars in its long-term budget. “DI2E is an emerging approach of doing business that does not yet have program elements assigned to it.”

Army officials have touted progress in updating the DCGS-A (Army) following failed tests and reports of poor performance in the field. Commanders for years had complained they could not share data with their peers from other branches of the military or with foreign allies in Afghanistan.

DCGS-A was so unpopular with some Army units that they opted for a commercial alternative made by Palantir, a company founded in 2004 with government seed funding. Palantir’s software, which creates a common picture of the battlefield, originally was financed by In-Q-Tel, a government venture capitalist organization that supports the intelligence community.

Senior Army leaders initially objected to the use of Palantir’s software, and saw it as a threat to the program of record. But during a December news conference at the Pentagon, officials softened their stance against the commercial system. They said the Army had decided to modify DCGS-A to make it more Palantir-like.

The entire team of about 40 DCGS contractors has been directed to improve the system so it is more user friendly and able to access the intelligence community’s Internet, or “cloud.”

“We told contractors we wanted ease of use,” said Col. David Pendall, a former division intelligence officer with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. “Palantir has been working in our labs at Aberdeen where we do DCGS development,” he said.

The Army’s earlier rejection of Palantir was attributed to its use of proprietary software. “Hopefully they can become compliant with the intelligence community standards,” Pendall said. “A number of commercial products out there also will be considered.”

Software that uses proprietary standards “creates impediments to the free exchange of data and I believe is a step in the wrong direction,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen G. Fogarty, commander of the Army Intelligence and Security Command. “A red line for me is a system that is not interoperable. Can’t do it if it’s a proprietary product.”

One of the major contractors in the DCGS-A program, Northrop Grumman Corp., is overseeing the system’s transition to a cloud-based setup. “We are working with the Army on how to migrate Army systems into an enterprise solution,” said Edward J. Bush, vice president of C4ISR networked systems at Northrop Grumman.

The DI2E standard is “still in development,” he said. “It addresses the coordination, collaboration among services and organizations.”

The cloud environment, Bush said, “allows greater data access and greater software application access. It doesn’t care where the server or the application is.”

The Army’s DCGS, despite the latest initiatives to modernize it, offers an illustrative example of what is wrong with most government information technology programs, Gunderson said.

The government is blindly embracing cloud-based technology, he said, without having necessarily studied the needs of the users. “In any successful enterprise, upfront work is done to understand the business model,” said Gunderson. Government IT projects do not do that. “They typically don’t realize that the technology does not come first. … You have to define the value proposition first, establish security and intellectual property protocols and how to share risks” before any program is implemented, he said. “You can’t do it backwards.”

The cloud is “very popular but the answer is to figure out what quality of service we’re trying to achieve, and then require contractors to meet the quality of service and not really care what technology they are using.”

The Palantir controversy also can be looked at as a microcosm of what happens when innovative competitors crash the party. The company gambled by shipping its software to the front lines and “people absolutely love it,” said Gunderson. Its cardinal sin was not that it did not work but that it was a “proprietary solution.” The priority for the Army, he noted, should be whether it is useful, and if the customer is satisfied.

“Government programs need to do a better job understanding what mission outcomes they are trying to achieve,” he said. “In general, that is the reason why programs such as DCGS are vulnerable to end runs by aggressive companies like Palantir.”

The Defense Department wants information systems that are open and easy to use like Travelocity, he said. “That’s great but they don’t address Einstein’s dilemma: Trying to solve a program that you created with the same processes and people who created the problem.”

Government programs have to question not just the technology but also how buyers write contracts and test systems. “I am impressed with members of the DCGS community,” said Gunderson. “They are bending over backwards to move things in the right direction. Will they achieve big successes? Only if they recognize past mistakes.”

Another item on the government’s IT wish list are “app stores” like Apple’s, where intelligence operators would be able to download software applications. Again, the government fails to see the reason why the Apple apps store is so successful, Gunderson said. A software developer who wants to offer a product must agree to the business model upfront. Developers negotiate to turn over intellectual property and sign on to a pricing structure before any software products go up for sale.

“In the government, an app store is not going to be successful because they haven’t done the business model upfront.”

As a government adviser, Gunderson helped create a forum called “Monster Mash” where government and industry engineers can bring information systems and make them plug and play together. “Companies have to demonstrate their products are interoperable,” he said.

Such a forum, he said, should help address the perennial frustration of the IT industry: The slow, bureaucratic government procurement process.

The DI2E managers at the Pentagon “support this as a model for acquisitions,” said Gunderson. A Monster Mash event that had been scheduled in March in Tampa, Fla., however, was canceled as a result of a recent wave of budget cuts and travel restrictions that have affected the entire federal government.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Topics: Cyber, Cybersecurity, Infotech, Infotech, Infotech

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