A U.S. sailor works at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Aug 22, 2016.

A U.S. sailor works at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Aug 22, 2016. Photo by Cpl. Garrett White

The US Military Will ‘Be Left Behind’ If It Doesn’t Embrace Open-Source Software, Report Says

Amid a rising China and Russia, the Pentagon’s slow pace on the software front could cost it tactically for years to come.

Unless the Defense Department and its military components levy increased importance on software development, they risk losing military technical superiority, according to a new report from the Center for a New American Security.

In the report, the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan think tank argues the Pentagon, which for years has relied heavily on proprietary software systems, “must actively embrace open source software” and buck the status quo.

Currently, DOD uses open source software “infrequently and on an ad hoc basis,” unlike tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook that wouldn’t exist without open source software.

“From game-changing weapons to routine back-office systems, the DOD is entirely reliant on its ability to identify, acquire, certify, deploy and manage software,” the report states. “But while the commercial world has installed repeatable and scalable frameworks that improve the software it uses, the DOD struggles to keep pace. Unless the department is able to accelerate how it procures, builds, and delivers software, it will be left behind.”

DOD defines open source software as “software for which the human-readable source code is available for use, study, re-use, modification, enhancement and re-distribution by the users of that software.” That public availability of source code is why open source gets shorted in national security discussions, usually because of “technical security concerns,” as the report notes.

However, its authors attempt to debunk those and other misconceptions.

“Using open source licensing does not mean that changes to the source code must be shared publicly; the ability to see source code is not the same as the ability to modify deployed software in production; using open source components is not equivalent to creating an entire system that is itself open sourced,” the report states.

The report discusses barriers to open source adoption and strategies for plowing through them, and concludes on a somber note. In light of a growing list of sophisticated technical adversaries, including China and Russia—both of whom are amid major transitions to open source software—DOD’s slow pace on the software front could cost it tactically for years to come.

“Software development is not currently a high-profile, high-priority topic in the discussion about diminishing U.S. military technical superiority,” the report states. “It should be.”

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