The military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff are debuting a new process for identifying and developing new technology capabilities. Among its main objectives —: stop the military services from duplicating one another’s work.
As the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps gradually shift their IT enterprises into a more homogenous framework that the Pentagon refers to as the Joint Information Environment, they’ll be complying with a revamped process for determining joint military capabilities and they’ll have to comply with common standards.
In exchange, the Pentagon will give them a bit of a heads-up on who’s supposed to do what before they start building their budgets, rather than afterward, a senior DoD official said Friday.
The military services’ technology programs are the subject of a syndrome public sector IT critics point to frequently — government organizations buying or building the same thing to serve the same mission, only slightly differently, because of different needs or what are perceived as different needs.
Martin Westphal, the Joint Staff’s vice director for command, control, communications and computers, said one example of the phenomenon is the Global Combat Support System. The Army, Air Force, Defense Information Systems Agency and Marine Corps all have their own variants of the enterprise resource planning system.
Problems affect battlefield, back offices
But Westphal told an industry audience at an AFCEA Northern Virginia luncheon Friday that the problem is not limited to ERPs, nor is it particularly new. He confronted a life-and-death example when he was a commander of marines in the first Gulf War. “In 1991, I almost took out a Kuwaiti battalion that crossed my front during the battle of Khafji because we couldn’t exchange blue force tracking data. Folks, we still have that problem today,” he said. “That’s a sin. We have to do better.”
Westphal said the problem is not a failure of technology. It’s one of procedure, like the way the military so far has employed concepts like DOTMLPF (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel and Facilities) to inform joint military needs.
“It’s how we’re directed to do business, and because one military department says, ‘We’re going to treat this information as secret,’ and another one says ‘No, it’s really unclassified,’ we build different systems to be able to handle information that that particular military department needs,” he said. “As such, we cannot share that information cross-boundary in combat. We have got to do better.”
The directorate Westphal works in is the newest on the Joint Staff, born out of the ashes of the recently disestablished U.S. Joint Forces Command. The newly re-established J-6, in military staff terms, has several responsibilities. But Westphal said “doing better” with respect to joint military IT is chief among them.
“Technology will enable us to do this, it’s the cultural shifts that are required. This has been briefed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and they are all on board,” he said. “Now the question is middle management. That’s where the iron majors and colonels and GS-14s and 15s live, but we’re getting there. This is being top-down driven.”
Common system architectures will be enforced
The redesigned process the Joint Staff now is using for determining which uniformed services should provide which capabilities to the entire military includes the notion that since IT capabilities are going to be used as part of a joint, and probably coalition force, in any future conflict, jointness needs to be built in before a system is developed. DoD will enforce common system architectures across the department, rather than letting each service develop its own.
“Now we are doing joint from inception, architecturally, instead of at endgame where we try to use baling wire, spit and bubble gum to make a system work that is now joint,” he said. “It adds to the complexity, the latency, the vulnerability, the security issues, everything. That’s what’s changing.”
Also changing is the information the individual military services will have available to them at the time they begin planning their programs and budgets for an upcoming fiscal year. Westphal said DoD’s Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) now will tell military components precisely what the Joint Force will need from them before they begin building their budgets, rather than at the end.
“The services spend an inordinate amount of time developing their budget plans. If we roll in at endgame and say, ‘Oops, sorry, we’re going to break your glass,’ that’s not the way to do business,” he said. “How much latency does that add to the process? How much inaccuracy does that add to the process? Our objective from a portfolio management standpoint is to get ahead of the bow wave. Our objective is to be able to tell them what we need from a joint C4 and cyber capability perspective. If they don’t agree with us, that’s fine, but it gives them plenty of time to develop and mitigate alternative solutions and courses of action to meet the need. It also enables the services, through the architectures, to see how each of them support each other and how dependent they are on each other. And it lets us test a system once not multiple times.”
Quick turnaround for planning documents
Westphal acknowledged big gaps and delays in capability in the past have often been the fault of the Pentagon, not the military services themselves. For example, a joint tactical radio platform known as JTRS, which was supposed to serve ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, was held up by a requirements document dating back to 2002. A Pentagon re-examination of that wish list eventually found the requirements were way out of date and the military instead bought a product line industry had been developing on its own.
But he insists that process has changed.
“No longer can folks point to the capability development process and say, ‘It’s your fault,'” he said. “We are now turning documents around in four-to-six weeks. A lot of it has to do with the architectural data so we can focus on specific gaps, whether it’s a hardware fix, a software fix, whatever, from a joint perspective. So instead of doing an analysis of alternatives that would last two or three years and cost millions of dollars, we’re using architectural assessments and analysis and looking at specific, iterative gaps, focusing in on them and doing quick studies that take 60 or 90 days.”
That change in behavior from the Pentagon, Westphal said, is not an option. If delays in military capability haven’t been enough of a change agent, he thinks budget pressure will.
“I don’t know if this is going to be a cliff, I don’t know if it’s going to be foothills, I don’t know if it’s going to be a gentle slope, but the bottom line is, if you look at history, innovation only occurs when we don’t have resources and we’ve got to use our heads,” he said. “Industry’s leading, and we’re adopting best business practices and institutionalizing them.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.