For those with Facebook accounts, try the following experiment: Open the web browser on your computer and start a chat message. Then, open the “Messenger” app on your smartphone and send a message to a friend. Note how long it takes for it to pop up on your phone. When your friend replies, tap the icon on your phone and look at your browser. How long did it take to register in your browser that you read the message on your phone? I’ve never seen it take more than two seconds. In that time, your phone app registers that you’ve read the message, translates that into the proper code, and sends it to your home WiFi router, modem, Internet, and Facebook servers, then back to the Internet, and ultimately through your modem and router to your desktop browser, which shows a little icon.
How does this compare with military communications systems and information flow? For simple personnel management: How long does it take to file for leave, or to manage personnel records, physical test scores, awards, and ribbons? For warfighting: Disregarding the time it takes to produce, verify, and vet intelligence and information reports, how long does it take for the most critical information to be received by the people who need it most?
How long does it take a command decision from the President or a combatant commander, such as an executive order or strike release, to reach the warfighter? If a U.S. embassy is overrun, how long until the crisis-response element is notified? The President?
These questions are certainly shaped by procedure, operations, and need. But every single second counts. In an age when 90 percent of service members who die in combat do so before they can reach a surgeon, cyber attacks occur in microseconds, and a single tweet or post in the right hands can notify security forces to prepare for imminent attack, each and every second is a matter of life and death.1 Our military communications and information systems could not be more critical—and they could hardly be more behind the times.
Our information systems lag far behind the private sector; the leviathan defense-acquisitions process has fused with the intelligence bureaucracy to keep warfighters and commanders decades in the past. The Department of Defense and the federal government focus on software and hardware solutions when they should be focusing on unifying data streams. The same contractors continue to win money from the government each year to grind out subpar, proprietary, overpriced products. The contract for the Navy–Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) expired in 2010, but it and its replacement, the Next Generation Network (NGEN), are both currently funded. NMCI staggers on under the Navy’s continuity-of-service contract with HP Enterprise Services, with a maximum value of $6.1 billion, while NGEN is managed by a “different team” within HP and funded for $3.5 billion.2
In the same vein, the U.S. Navy recently signed a $2.5 billion contract with CGI Federal, an IT consulting company made infamous for its prominent role in the botched launch of the Affordable Care Act website.3 If the Navy can’t get a single personnel system from a reputable vendor, what are the chances the DOD as a whole is doing any better in the operational or classified realms? The effects of this software-focused mindset on the war-fighter are unsurprising: Sailors must access one system, BUPERS On-Line, for personnel info and awards, another (DFAS) for pay, a third (NSIPS) for leave, and yet another (PRIMS) for physical training and medical data—not to mention hard-copy records such as awards, fitness reports, and orders, which must be entered manually by administrative staff. No system speaks to any other, and if any data is incorrect or needs to be duplicated, sailors need to call a service center and wait their turn on hold. Every part of this process wastes time, money, and effort better spent preparing them for battle.
For 70 years the United States has enjoyed two luxuries in every armed conflict: vast technological superiority and the ability to choose the timing and location of its battles. We perfected our joint constructs and training to use all the services as one single cohesive weapon of military might. As early adopters of aviation technology, we revolutionized warfare with the aircraft carrier, which allowed us to project power and wage war in every corner of the world nearly unchallenged for 50 years. Most important, we adapted our entire warfighting paradigm to make the best use of the new style of warfare. However, our data systems have not even remotely kept pace. As a warfare area, cyber technology struggles to be integrated into our existing bureaucracy and processes; as a community it fights for the legal authorities and command powers granted to the other component commanders. Information as a warfighting strategy is completely untrodden ground.
Information warfare goes beyond obvious cyber attacks. Our complacency in the face of the omnipresent cyber threat (such as the recent Office of Personnel Management hack) should be a constant reminder of our inability to innovate and improve our infrastructure. The numerous personnel systems previously mentioned are more than replicated on the operational side, where there is a unique system for every aircraft, ship, missile, artillery, and radar—this gaping disparity is the reason the interoperable nature of the Navy’s Aegis system is so widely hailed, but it wouldn’t be, if more planning and direction had been focused on the data streams used by each system.
The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and the government have farmed out much of the DOD’s software needs to third-party contractors (similar to what the dot-coms did in the 1990s) as part of its “enterprise” solution to everything: downsizing local support in favor of cheap overseas call centers. The resulting support is slow, tiresome, and ineffective. Time and money wasted now are guaranteed to give way to operational failure and loss of life as soon as the United States confronts a modern adversary. What will a soldier in combat do if he is missing essential software or comes under attack and needs a new capability as soon as possible? Put in a trouble ticket? Place a call to a center in the United States?
Our information does not need not be controlled like a chain of command, but our systems absolutely need the same level of flexibility if we ever hope to establish true information dominance. The warfighter in combat needs unfettered access to the latest data and intelligence. If he doesn’t, he’ll break the rules to get it (likely ignoring security procedure), because his life, the lives of his friends, and the mission all depend on him. Our commanders are surrounded by people whose sole purpose is to connect them with subordinates to relay information and orders up and down the chain of command, but when crises kick off, our leaders can be left blind by the lack of access to existing information and intelligence. The true tragedy here is that the data exists, but is unusable due to lack of foresight and the ineffective defense-acquisitions process.
Look to Industry
The Joint Force Concept provides an interesting model if applied to information infrastructure management. In battle, each unit has a specific chain of command, regardless of service. All air units are under the command of the joint force air component commander (JFACC), all land units under the joint force land component commander, and so on. The JFACC controls neither funding nor standards for the unit, but he is intimately familiar with the role it should play in achieving his objective. The funding and unit standards are controlled by the unit’s home parent command within its service, fulfilling the service’s administrative role to man, train, equip, and maintain its readiness level. It would be insane for the Navy to ignore a commander’s request for a capability, but this happens constantly on networks. Why shouldn’t DISA act like the services? Each commander has specific technology and software needs, but currently has no ability to get them.
As it exists now, the Joint Information Environment is a patchwork affair of different government agencies and military commands merely linked to the same network. There is no unity of infrastructure, communications, or control. Put bluntly, none of the systems “talk to each other.” DISA is the lead for implementing a singular vision for information-technology management in the DOD and should already be working with every branch and agency to guarantee top-of-the-line systems support to warfighters through the existing IT divisions (N-6, J-6, etc.).
If it isn’t doing so already, DISA should be taking notes from the network wizards and software developers at Amazon, Facebook, and Google on how to design intelligent, user-friendly systems and software. Google’s success sits plainly in its ability to mesh disparate data sources to serve the user. For example, the “Google Now” service, which uses data gathered through the Gmail spam filter, sends users notifications about upcoming flights and packages. Imagine if DISA could do the same for military networks.
DISA should establish three principles for any IT contract. The first is functionality; a 50 percent technology “solution” is no solution at all. In the speed of the current threat environment, our technology cannot afford to lag. When was the last time anyone heard of Google or Facebook going down unexpectedly, even for maintenance? No one’s life depends on those systems. Meanwhile, if military information systems go down and troops enter combat, that time spells life or death.
The second is intuitiveness. No system becomes user-friendly by accident. Concepts as basic as consistent display themes are completely ignored in military systems. That’s not to say every product needs to be pretty. Rather, consistent design decreases the learning curve for new systems and allows new users to learn the basics once. It can be as simple as “this button is always green.” Each requires time, effort, and research to ensure anyone can learn it quickly, and this is what we should be paying companies to make for us. Here again DISA can learn from Google, as Android apps have specific design principles that create a seamless user experience and drastically increase the app’s chance of success in the market.4 This goes hand-in-hand with 100 percent functionality and would directly cut down on wasted time and money in the acquisitions process. The military spends an unfathomable amount of time and money teaching service members, contractors, and civilians to use outdated systems and databases, including full-time instructors. Any database or interface that is used by more than one command that requires more than an hour of instruction should not be allowed to operate in the Joint Information Environment. All of the best tech products in the civilian world are intuitive; they require no class or training. It’s time we catch up.
The third is flexibility. Having flexible software means being data-centric. When we make data the focus of our IT efforts, we would suddenly have money and time to make systems do what we actually wanted, rather than the minimum we required. If systems are functional and intuitive, no one would complain if the contract changed. New systems would be easy to learn, especially if they followed similar design principles, and would provide the same capabilities. Flexible systems would also allow service members to hot-fix problems they encounter in the field, since realistically speaking, we can never build a perfect system. In IT, users generally don’t have the permissions or authorities to make the changes they desperately need. In combat, this is a recipe for disaster. The IT management paradigm absolutely cannot be enterprise-based; that’s the equivalent of forcing an aircraft carrier to return to port so one specific contractor can fix the soda machine. DISA must empower existing IT departments to help service members without the bureaucratic mess of online tickets and call-center help desks.
There is no question the military suffers from a dysfunctional acquisitions process and a labyrinthine bureaucracy. The main problem is not a lack of cutting-edge technology solutions, but a misplaced focus on software. We have amazing systems, superior support, and extremely technologically capable warfighters. We simply must change the way we think about data. Facebook, Google, and Amazon are learning to master data fusion and have benefited greatly. If we take our cues from those successful companies, we can begin to make our networks functional, intuitive, and flexible. Over time, as we phase out systems and databases that don’t communicate with each other, we will increase our network strength and warfighting capability. And when the time comes, we will be more than capable of anticipating and defeating the next enemy.
2. U.S. Navy PEO EIS Online, 17 October 2013, www.public.navy.mil/spawar/PEOEIS/NEN/NGEN/Pages/AboutUs.aspx. Nick Wakeman, “Navy picks HP as winner of $3.5B NGEN contract,” Washington Technology Online, 27 June 2013, http://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2013/06/27/navy-ngen-winner.aspx.
3. “CGI awarded spot on US $2.5 billion Navy CANES Contract,” Market Watch, 12 January 2015, www.marketwatch.com/story/cgi-awarded-spot-on-us25-billion-navy-canes-contract-2015-01-12-8183450. Lydia DePillis, “Meet CGI Federal, the company behind the botched launch of HealthCare.gov,” The Washington Post, 16 October 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/10/16/meet-cgi-federal-the-company-behind-the-botched-launch-of-healthcare-gov.
4. Android Developer Online, https://developer.android.com/design/get-started/principles.html.
Lieutenant (j.g.) Morris graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2013 with a degree in control systems engineering (mechatronics). He currently serves with the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.