Gates wants DOD IT consolidation, but the past isn't encouraging

A centralized military network would help cut costs, but can DOD make it work?

In explaining his plans for reducing the defense budget by $100 billion over the next five years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates alluded to the goal of a common operating environment as a way to not only save money but improve operations.

“All of our bases, operational headquarters and defense agencies have their own IT infrastructures, processes and application-ware,” Gates said. “This decentralized approach results in large cumulative costs, and a patchwork of capabilities that create cyber vulnerabilities and limit our ability to capitalize on the promise of information technology.”

It’s an idea the Pentagon has been pushing for years, although it has been picking up renewed steam recently. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the new U.S. Cyber Command, which was activated in May, also recently called for a common operating view of all defense networks.

A centralized network that gives the military a common IT environment would indeed improve efficiency, cut costs and bolster security, too. But how realistic is it? The Navy developed a common environment with its Navy Marine Corps Intranet, but that project took 10 years and a quite a few fits and starts to get going. And it still has its critics.

One place where the military has specifically worked toward cross-service interoperability is at the Joint Forces Command, which, among other things, has worked on the challenge of sharing data across systems with different security classifications. But JFCOM would be closed down under Gates’ cost-cutting plan.

Is a common, defense-wide IT environment possible? Would an effort that large be confounded by the large number of legacy applications, mismatched systems and other factors? Or is there a way it can be achieved – perhaps leading to a transformational change in the way government systems operate? 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. We think this is a topic worthy of discussion.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Aug 18, 2010 Dave Hawaii

The "IT is a weapons system" elevator speech is getting pretty worn out. I've seen all kinds of senior leaders make all kinds of ill-considered decisions on the strategy, policy, programs and investments dimensions of IT on the grounds that "IT is just another weapons system." I happen to think the SECDEF was poorly advised on the matter of needing an ASD/NII or not. Just because there has been a general failure of leadership, specific vision/strategy and most certainly a failure of execution from ASD/NII doesn't mean that the need, the charter and assigned functions of that staff don't remain as legitimate and important as ever. ASD/NII probably represented SECDEF Gates' last fighting chance to break the tyranny of Title 10, to drive programmatic and acquisition reform in IT, and to consolidate/integrate commodity DoD and IC IT infrastructure. But the SECDEF needs to clearly and unequivocally DIRECT that this staff undertake those things as a priority, and then provide the fire-power needed when the Services and Agencies all start to whine about how programmatic and acquisition life as they know it is changing so dramatically. ASD/NII needed to do this in close alignment with ODNI and USD/I, and the ASD/NII staff needed to be specifically empowered and charged to make it happen on all kinds of levels, including canceling and realigning major acquisition programs. Putting the right leader in the job would certainly have been key - and I have no idea if California's former CIO was the right leader. Time would have told, but it looks more like the issue is going to be moot. So now it will take another 5-10 years for some other new top-level staff, perhaps aligned under OSD/AT&L, or distributed across DISA, CYBERCOM and OSD, to get their shingle out, get their you-know-what in one sock, and get their heads wrapped around the challenges - many of which will require legislation and major reform to fix. With respect to the specific decision to kill ASD/NII, I'm not seeing this as an inspired course of action, frankly.

Mon, Aug 16, 2010

The Joint Logistics Systems Center (JLSC), of the early-to-mid 1990s, is an example of failure -- waste of time and funding –- attempting to consolidate joint services and Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) business information systems. The joint services and DLA agreed to disagree over any issue that reduced their individual parochial funding and control. Each military service and DLA would point to the relatively minor, blown out of proportion, uniqueness of their legacy business practices (a.k.a., rice bowl protection), and the unique legacy information systems to support those practices. This, rather than looking for the far greater shared commonality, which through implemented consolidation held the promise of considerable system life cycle cost savings and standardization. What a pity – the JLSC represents a failed mission and an opportunity lost. Perhaps, it can also serve as a lessons learned experience and provide much needed insight into future DoD consolidation efforts. Start with The Politics of Information Management, by Paul A. Strassmann (former Director of Defense Information), ISBN: 0962041343.

Since the days of the JLSC, the military services and the DLA have or are implementing commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) information systems. There is no oversight in the source selection of the COTS software package resulting in a mix of COTS vendors and their proprietary (non-standard) software. Worse, the services and DLA have individually greatly customized the underlying ERP databases and computer code to fit their unique business practices. Moreover, each of the ERP system implementations has a big price tag and huge risk. The rice bowls continue. Some lessons are hard to learn.

Thu, Aug 12, 2010 Josh Melton Ohio

AFNETOPS is the devil. It's horrible because there is no one-size-fits-all solution and costs more money to support than it has ever potentially saved hardware/software wise. Add to that the loss of training and the rise of IT ignorance in the <=E-6 ranks due to this evolution and you see the immeasurable devastation this has on force capability. A one-domain solution is also a single-point-of-failure in an otherwise tactical world. I keep hearing that IT is a weapons system, but it's treated as a place to cut corners and save money. It's being done wrong on so many levels. I believe a blend of that over-arching structure for boundary protection and vulnerability/compliance directives is necessary, but each MAJCOM is more closely aligned with its own mission and is in desperate need of capable IT resources at that local site to maintain agility in resolution of problems. Couple that with the tactical survivability of multiple forests that are properly architected (AFNETOPS is not), and you can create achieve savings and proper military goals. If Gates' goals are only savings, then he, like the writers of AFNETOPS ten years ago, will push the Air Force, and eventually the Joint world, into a massive failure just waiting to happen. That's the detachment between the folks at the top, and the customer at the bottom.

Wed, Aug 11, 2010

Hardware? You guys are worried about consolidating hardware or making Office work? I would be happy if I could get through one day without re-engineering some GOTS app at the desktop. Command A has an app for a particular piece of equipment, Command B has the same app for a different model. A works great, B has issues because an integral component of the app gets killed by the security set or a COTS update. No docs, no admin notes, just wing it. Hardware is a piece of cake. GOTS has/will bust the budget.

Wed, Aug 11, 2010

It'll have to be mandated from POTUS/Congressional level. It will never be done by consensus. Too many rice bowls. A COE does NOT have to mean a monoculture for OS and hardware, which is a SPOF for attacks. Best to start with a blank sheet of paper and build a new system, then start cutting people over and migrating legacy data. Todo this correctly, though, DoD would also have to have a standard suite of business processes, data sets, reports, ad nauseum, as opposed to the 5+ sets of everything they have now. THAT change would be as hard as the software and hardware end.

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