IT experts, former leaders say DOD behind with advanced tech
A panel of IT experts and former high-level military officials said acquisition red tape slows DOD’s ability to acquire cutting edge technology.
Congress has tried for years to pass legislation to make the Pentagon a smarter buyer of technology. So when members of the House Armed Services Committee met recently with Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, what they heard gave them pause.
Schmidt, who is also the head of a panel of Pentagon advisers known as the Defense Innovation Board, has been beating the drum about the widening gap between the military’s information systems and those of the private sector. The discussion was “provoking,” said Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who chairs the HASC subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. And it prompted her to convene a hearing last week with three recently departed senior Pentagon officials.
The questions focused on how can the Pentagon spend $30 billion a year on IT and yet, barely make a dent in modernizing decades-old information networks and systems? And what will it take to turn things around?
These are issues that continue to baffle lawmakers, especially those from committees that have focused on government procurement reforms. “Management and acquisition of information technology at the Department of Defense is one of the most challenging and pressing organizational and administrative issues facing us today,” said the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat Rep. Jim Langevin.
Former Defense Department CIO Terry Halvorsen said he finds it alarming that the Pentagon continues to deliver “legacy solutions” at a time of exploding technology growth in the private sector. Despite repeated attempts by previous administrations and Congress to change antiquated buying methods, the Pentagon is perfectly comfortable “dictating a series of technical requirements that will be outdated the day we publish them,” said Halvorsen, who is now an executive at technology giant Samsung. “DOD needs a better understanding of the commercial environment,” he told the subcommittee.
Halverson suggested Congress should eliminate rules that “don't make any sense and limit the ability for DOD and other government agencies to function correctly.” Requirements to test and certify commercial products are one reason why modernization has been difficult, he said. “The security accreditation process is costing both the government and industry lots of money and doing a disservice to our service members for how long it takes to get those products certified. We insist on testing stuff that commercially has been accepted and tested in industry.”
It is not news to industry watchers that defense IT procurement has been in a state of dysfunction. Many reform proposals have been put forth but little ever changes. HASC members pressed the former Pentagon officials for fresh ideas.
“I think we unintentionally have been building for a long time a culture of distrust and one that was based on over-regulation,” said Halvorsen.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Developmental Test and Evaluation Ed Greer noted that in 2013, the emerging threats subcommittee hosted a roundtable discussion on IT acquisition reform. “And it seems like the same challenges and the same issues were discussed three or four years ago.”
Langevin asked point blank: What can Congress and the administration do now to speed up the modernization of IT?
One thing they could do is give Pentagon managers more discretion to buy products, at least to try them out, without having to navigate the procurement gauntlet, said Halvorsen. As CIO, he noted, “I had a $37 billion budget. I had to approve that budget, write that budget, yet I couldn't authorize directly a million dollars if I saw a great technology to put right on the table.”
When government officials spot that “great technology” — that meets an urgent military need — they should be able to waive some of the more burdensome regulations, such as a mandate that vendors have to be competitively selected, he said. “I think that would really drive some rapid acquisition quickly.”
Greer said the contracting process is, “In my mind, a major impediment whether it's acquisition of weapon systems or IT systems.” Even contracts for simple items are bogged down in regulatory red tape and an accumulation of requirements issued by the Pentagon, the military services and Congress. He suggested Congress start a “zero based review of all of the contracting policies.”
As things stand today, defense contracting continues to get more, not less, complex.
Just two weeks ago, for instance, President Trump signed a “Buy America” executive order intended to crack down on government purchases of non-U.S. made equipment. This throws a wrench in IT procurement as most of the industry’s microelectronics manufacturing takes place outside the United States.
“It has always been a concern in the acquisition community that if you have Buy America provisions that become too restrictive, it will limit our ability to get the best weapons systems,” said former Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine.
Halvorsen cautioned that IT buyers worry about Chinese products that may come loaded with malware and vendors whose supply chains cannot be fully vetted. But that should not preclude access to foreign suppliers from friendly nations, he said. Maybe the policy should be changed to “Buy American and Allied.”
Levine agreed. There's a difference between worrying about supply chain cybersecurity in “countries of concern” and saying that “all countries are off the table.”
Where this debate goes from here is up to Congress at this point, as many Pentagon leadership posts remain unfilled and a forthcoming reorganization of the acquisition office could delay policy decisions for months or years.
HASC members, however, will keep digging into procurement issues as the committee starts drafting the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, said Stefanik.
Some proposed changes could come from the so-called “section 809 panel,” created by Congress in the 2016 NDAA “to streamline and improve” military procurement.
The panel’s chair Deidre “Dee” Lee, who spent decades in the procurement trenches, said the group was given free rein by Congress to propose “bold” actions. They will be weeding through the federal acquisition regulations, and figure out ways to simplify the buying process with the goal to give Pentagon buyers easier access to the technology from the open market.
A preview of what the panel might do should be made public in 30 to 60 days. Congress wants a final proposal by August 2018.
In a recent interview, Lee said procurement reforms in the past only provided “broad generic recommendations” that nobody knew how to implement. “Improve competition. Improve the acquisition workforce. Ok, what does that mean? And what law needs to be changed? What regulations need to be changed? What training needs to happen?”
The “simplification of purchases” is a central goal of the 809 panel. That could mean giving the Pentagon broader authorities to buy equipment like the rest of the world, from the open market with a credit card. One problem is that the current acquisition system treats $1 million contracts the same as $1 billion contracts.
Lee says the group is not afraid to wade into issues that may upset Congress such as third-rail socioeconomic policies in federal contracting — mandatory set-asides for disadvantaged, veterans- or women-owned small businesses. “Why does it have to be 23 percent?” Lee asked of the Pentagon mandate for small business contracts. If the Pentagon’s mission is to find the most innovative technologies for the armed forces, why does it matter where they come from?