Archive for April, 2014

I was at Fort Lee, VA a couple weeks ago for a month-long course on logistics management systems. I spent two full days learning about the Integrated Logistics Analysis Program (ILAP) and its ability to pull statuses of supply orders throughout the entire Army’s supply system. The next week I spent a day learning about the Battle Command Sustainment Support System (BCS3), which also proved to show me some good assets for tracking logistics statuses and locations of supplies and transportation nodes. I came out of both classes thinking of how all of these great tools could have helped me when I was a brand new Lieutenant in the Army, when I used MS-DOS based systems to track supplies in 2007. I even sat through a briefing on the Global Combat Support System-Army (GCSS-A) and learned about how this phenomenal new IT platform would revolutionize logistics management throughout the world.

The Standard Army Retail Supply System (SARSS), circa 2007.  I had a hard time using this system as there was no budget for computer mice!

The Standard Army Retail Supply System (SARSS), circa 2007. I had a hard time using this system as there was no budget for computer mice!

I soon found that all of the time I took to learn these systems would be subject to an ironic discovery – these “revolutionary” systems were not nearly as new as they were made out to be. ILAP has been around since the 1990s and has been used by units in Bosnia. And GCSS-Army has been in development since the early 1980s! So my next question was, why is the Army spending all this time training on systems that are decades old?

It seems that not only the Army, but the entire Department of Defense is prone to still relying on systems that were developed decades ago during the big IT boom of the early 1990s. Several platforms that combat units are using today have been developed using Windows 3.1 operating systems and often feature obsolete, analog maps and menus. Many of them are packaged in bulky cases and require large batteries to operate.  Additionally, many of these systems are “stand alone” and require removable disks to transfer data, unlike the modern Cloud programs.  These are the primary systems that troops are directed to use for major operations in combat and sustainment. Who would have ever thought that our troops on the front lines are still fighting a decade of war using 20th Century Information Technology? What is even more ironic is that most units refuse to even use these systems and instead use the familiar Microsoft and Google products they all know from everyday life.

A Soldiers uses the 20th Century Joint Capabilities Release (JCR) system prior to beginning a patrol.  An iPad packaged in an Otterbox case can process both map images and instant messages 8 times as fast.

A Soldiers uses the 20th Century Joint Capabilities Release (JCR) system prior to beginning a patrol. An iPad packaged in an Otterbox case can process both map images and instant messages 8 times faster.

Many critics have been asking how the DoD went from being an organization that developed the Internet to one that is completely behind the times. Marcus Weisgerber analyzes the situation in-depth at the Pentagon/Congressional level in this article. The major cause, it seems, all revolves around the price. The development and sustainment of the world’s most advanced technology comes at a heavy price, and one that the DoD continually does not have the money to pay. After a decade of a trillion dollar budget to pay for two bloody conflicts, the Federal Government and the American Economy have both paid a heavy price.  In the latest budget cuts to the DoD this year, The SECDEF and several of the Chiefs of Staff have all expressed that the Research and Development (R&D) divisions of the DoD would be the hardest hit by the cuts. This will lead to stagnation in new technology development, meaning that troops will be stuck with the same systems for years to come.

However, let’s look deeper at the issue. Is price really the driving force behind this stagnation in IT systems? My gut feeling is that there is money that still there but being spent on the wrong things. One particular department I know of (which will remain unnamed) just bought new tablets and digital cameras for its people recently, despite these “major” budget cuts. At the same time, offices are continuing to buy corporate-style furniture and phone systems with no cap on spending. There are countless programs throughout the DoD for which I even question their existence. The bottom line is that the money is being spent daily, but who’s really keeping track of how it’s being spent?  Just add the word “expendable” to any item, and there ya go.

BAE's Raider system will never be a reality on the battlefield because $2.5 billion per unit is just too much money.

BAE’s Raider system will never be a reality on the battlefield because $2.5 billion per unit is just too much money.

On the R&D side, it is true that the DoD cannot do all of the development themselves, and they must therefore outsource to Defense Contractors. These guys are not cheap, as they exist to maintain the profits necessary to sustain their corporate stakeholder base for a competitive global economy. However, what is really included in this price that they are charging? Is there a reason for a laptop that costs $1000 to be sold to the DoD at $10,000 per unit?  What makes this $10,000 system so much better than one made by Apple or Google?  Will it survive shock or shrapnel from a mortar round?  Is there any training that comes with the price of this system?  Will it be guaranteed to last more than 5 years?  Oh wait…

All in all, it seems that there are issues on both sides of the fence that need to be addressed. As a person who’s job it is to solve problems in the face of chaos, here are my suggestions:

1. The DoD must take a hard look at how money is being spent from the top levels all the way down to the lowest joe. There is money out there, and there might be some more free resources available than are typically seen.

2. Tap into the knowledge and skills of the end users. Don’t try to thrust an outdated system upon a group of smart kids. Find out at their level what they perceive to be a good system that fulfills their needs. If the current system works, then use that, but if a better system is out there then try it out.

3. Defense contractors need to develop quality products that are actually worth the price for which they are sold. Don’t just inflate the price because you can – that is exactly what has gotten us into this budget crisis. If you claim to support the troops, do more by making the best products at the best price. Hey, even use your international business diplomacy to influence economic prosperity around the world. Just a thought…

4. Both sides need to tighten up their shot group quickly, as it is clear that the military no longer reigns supreme in the IT game, with the civilian world clearly gaining the upper hand.  As we have learned in the past decade of war, enemies are no longer organized armies – they are home grown citizens of countries around the world.  They will use the technology assets available to their advantage – but will the military be able to react as effectively?

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