By Haley Parsons
Best Defense guest
A recent panel discussion on military IT acquisition, held
at the Brookings Institution, was creatively titled "Moore's
Law Goes to War: How Can the Department of Defense Keep Pace With Changes in IT?" as
a nod to Gordon Moore's observation that computing power doubles roughly once
every two years. The panel was moderated by Ian Wallace, visiting Fellow in
Cybersecurity at Brookings and a former cybersecurity official at the British
Ministry of Defence. Wallace emphasized the DoD's difficulty in keeping pace
with the breakneck speed of IT development by explaining that, in 1997, the
world's fastest supercomputer was created by Sandia National Laboratories to
model nuclear weapons. A mere nine years later, another computer with the same
speed was released to the general public: The Playstation 3.
Jon Etherton, president and owner of Etherton and
Associates, Inc. and former staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee,
said that acquisition reform in Congress and the DoD tends to run in a ten to
twelve-year cycle. Mr. Etherton emphasized that there is an emerging consensus
in all areas of government that IT acquisition reform is a stand-alone issue.
He said that with the recent budget cutbacks, there continued to be a
discussion on the Hill of scrutinizing recent legislation, such as Section 804
of the Defense Authorization Act, and said that he believed the Congressional
committees are "not fully satisfied that the Department has answered the mail"
on the issue of IT conceptualization of acquisition.
Echoing Mr. Etherton's idea that acquisition reform ebbs and
flows on a cycle was Tom Sisti, senior director and chief legislative counsel
in the Washington office for SAP America.
He referred to the process as
"procurement groundhog day" whereby the government runs into the same
set of problems that promote the same types of recommendations and the same
types of reform efforts, such as DoD reliance on commercial items where
possible, implementing key successful business processes, and creating a
trained and sustained acquisition workforce. Mr. Sisti ended his initial time
with the cryptic statement that "There are issues we don't confront and maybe
we need to open the door to confronting them, or at least asking the
Jacques Gansler, a chair in public policy and private
enterprise at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and a
previous undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics,
was more than willing to open that door himself. Dr. Gansler, who candidly stated
that he was "asked not to give too many complaints but will do it anyway",
articulated some of the issues not mentioned by other speakers while commenting
on the idea of a cyclic military acquisition reform process. But Dr. Gansler
said that what "looks like an eighteen-year-cycle" is actually driven by
exogenous variables and is not likely to come back unless there is "another
9/11 or Pearl Harbor". He said that in the last few decades there have been
periods of dramatic decline in defense spending after the major wars, and the
same three areas get unfunded: research, training, and conferences. Dr. Gansler
referred to this as "giving up the future for the present so you can buy more
tanks, planes, and ships" and not recognizing that the United States' national
security strategy includes maintaining technological superiority over its
adversaries. He stated that the tech industry is now globalized and America's
adversaries are better-equipped than ever, so it is impossible to maintain
global technological leadership with no research investments.
While the Congressional committees may not believe that the
DoD has "answered the mail" on the issues of IT conceptualization and
acquisition, according to Mr. Etherton, Andrew Hunter, executive secretary of
the Warfighter Senior Integration Group and director of the Joint Rapid
Acquisition Cell, asserted that the Department of Defense was committed to
acquisition reform. He stated that it "has the daily attention of DoD senior
leadership" and that they are dedicated to acquisition and improving the
process. Countering Dr. Gansler, Mr. Hunter said that senior leadership
understands that technological superiority is part of the United States'
national security strategy and understands that the performance of the acquisition
system is critical to the DoD's future.
Taking an optimistic, opportunistic view of budget
constraints and rapid IT development was Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF, an expert in
the field of rapid IT acquisition. He said that "innovation doesn't have to
cost so much, take so long, and be so complicated". To illustrate his point,
Lt. Col. Ward brought the panel back to the Playstation 3 by discussing the
Condor Cluster, built by the Air Force in 2010. At the time it was the fastest
supercomputer in the Department of Defense, was built for 1/10th the
cost and used 1/10the electricity of a comparable supercomputer.
The cluster was built out of 1,760 Playstation 3s.
"You would never cobble a bunch of PS3s together if you had
a lot of time and money on your hands," Ward stated, going on to say that
"There are benefits to living in an age of austerity where time and money are
constrained. It acts as a forcing function for creativity."
via Wikimedia Commons