The Pentagon Wants Its Next Global Communication Systems to be Agile and Open

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The Defense Information Systems Agency is looking to eventually turn off its old system currently maintained primarily by Northrop Grumman.

The Pentagon wants to bring one of the most important systems for sharing and delivering intelligence throughout the U.S. armed forces chain of command fully into the 21st century.

In November, the Defense Department sought insight from industry for how it might modernize the aging Global Command and Control system with new technologies like cloud computing, big data techniques and visualization tools.

The request for information, issued by the Defense Information Systems Agency, also signals a major shift in technological thinking for the Pentagon, which for decades spent heavily on proprietary systems for specific programs and massive projects built over years.

The modernized system aims for lower costs through agile development, open standards and open source code, and applications designed with user interface in mind, according to Cathy Ricketts, the system’s program manager.

Ricketts formerly served as the chief information officer at the Naval Sea Systems Command before she came to DISA – the Pentagon’s IT arm – five months ago.

The Global Command and Control System – GCCS-J, pronounced “Geeks-J” – provides situational awareness in the form of layered maps to 800 different DOD and military sites. Viewers include everyone from senior military staff to the “boots on the ground,” Ricketts said.

GCCS-J allows users to view a “globe” of physical locations, such as battlefields or other hot spots, incorporating geospatial and other data, Ricketts said. Still, the system’s oldest components, which include hardware, software and applications, are up to 20 years old.

DISA has been trying to modernize its IT systems in accordance with the Joint Information Environment framework, Ricketts said. But fiscally strained and slowed by acquisition policies that haven’t kept pace with technological evolution, DISA is looking for creative solutions to modernizing large-scale systems like GCCS-J.

“People are more open to change and creativity and those kinds of things when money is not abundant,” Ricketts told Nextgov. “My team has been fabulous and responsive to this.”

Early into her new position at DISA, Ricketts immediately carved out a strategy that included industry partnerships to “get their best and brightest ideas.” That ended up including separating the maintenance and modernization efforts for GCCS-J into two separate contracts.

Defense contracting behemoth Northrop Grumman currently holds the prime contract for maintaining the system and has earned tens of millions of dollars of maintenance and follow-on work. Ricketts acknowledged the importance of continuing to provide security patches and necessary maintenance to GCCS-J across its 800 sites.

However, DOD hopes the modernization contract leads to a “really good, disruptive system” that offers legacy GCCS-J users the necessary incentive to move to the new platform, she added.

“We’re hungry for new ideas,” she said.

In that scenario, the “old systems” could be turned off, saving untold millions, although that may be a while.

As long as customers continue to rely on the old version, we’ll have to keep it up and running,” she said.

And don’t expect the modernized GCCS-J platform to have any more proprietary software than absolutely necessary. Ricketts wants to get rid of as much proprietary software as possible, which would reduce licensing costs.

The release of the RFI in November was the first step toward a formal request for contract proposals.

Tech companies that work in big data, integration, geospatial systems, cloud computing and other emerging fields can submit feedback through Jan. 15.

DISA could release a formal RFP by mid-May, Ricketts said, and hopes to award a contract by early 2017. DISA has not established a target dollar value for the contract, but based on past awards, it could be worth as much as $200 million.

In the meantime, Ricketts said her team is conducting at least one six-month pilot to further explore cloud-based widgets and applications for geospatial information within the current GCCS-J system.

“We’re taking geospatial things and making applications out of them – screamingly fast applications,” Ricketts said.

The RFI addresses security, calling for a “secure cloud,” which could include a commercially-operated cloud or DISA’s on-premise cloud platforms.

Cloud offers the possibility of cost savings and increased speed, Ricketts said. But they need to be architected properly.

And applications ought to be based on user feedback, so Ricketts has her team visiting mission partners and combatant commands to “break it down from the user perspective,” she said.  

“The Pentagon gives us requirements, which are good,” Ricketts said. “But we’re sitting down and watching them with their hands on keyboards.”

Furthermore, Ricketts said applications will have to “be “device agnostic” on everything from enormous DOD command center monitors – remember the layered globes – to mobile devices.

“Chances are slim that I’d use a cellphone to look at the globe and what’s going on in the world; however, if I can get a notice or alert on my cellphone, that is useful,” Ricketts said.

Upgrading archaic IT systems has become a key priority of the Obama administration’s tech policymakers.

Tony Scott, the federal chief information officer, recently called the U.S. government’s reliance on legacy systems a multibillion crisis “bigger than Y2K.” More than three-quarters of the $80 billion budget spent on federal IT systems goes toward legacy systems.

While much of the federal government remains mired in legacy technology, Ricketts hopes to buck the trend.

“I’ve worked for the federal government 30-plus years, and my favorite thing is to do the impossible,” she said.

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