Choosing the best software for soldiers on the battlefield is becoming as important as the weapons they use. But it’s also becoming an increasingly complicated supply challenge for military commanders and acquisition officials, according to defense experts.
There’s little question that real-time information – and the ability to analyze and act on that information quickly – is becoming the ultimate weapon for warfighters.
The problem is how to keep up with that need when the underlying technology changes continuously – while also balancing the need to deploy or update systems that work reliably together.
And there’s the parallel problem perhaps just as vexing for defense officials: How do you manage the expectations and improvisational inclinations of technologically-savvy warfighters.
The demand for proven software tools from the field partially mirrors another development sweeping across the federal government: the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) revolution which is transforming the workplace and challenging the iron rule of agency information technology leaders.
But the demand for leading-edge software products is also getting a push from military software application makers who haven’t been shy about cultivating a growing following for their products directly with warfighters.
The military, to its credit, is making progress in acquiring more commercial off the shelf products that are often more advanced than systems built exclusively for the military. Defense acquisition officials, however, remain under relentless pressure to chose those products carefully and avoid the scandals of past procurement decisions where favoritism or inefficiencies delayed or derailed major technology and weapon systems.
“There are so many ‘lessons learned’ we haven’t learned,” said Jacques Gansler, the undersecretary for acquisition during much of the Clinton Administration during a press briefing on acquisition reform earlier this month (see Breaking Defense’s report.)
The result is renewed tensions between commanders, members of Congress, and industry dedicated to giving U.S. troops the best equipment possible, and the military bureaucracy responsible for actually supplying that equipment.
A glimpse of how those tensions are playing out was captured in a recent NPR report describing how a software system, developed by Palantir, is caught in the middle of a contentious battle between Army procurement officials and warfighters who’ve come to rely on it.
The software, called DCGS-A (Distributed Common Ground System-Army), was built by a consortium of defense contractors according to Army specifications and designed to track and analyze information about IEDs (improvised explosive devices.)
Army officials are have vetoed numerous requests for the anit-IED software from soldiers in Afghanistan, according to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif, NPR reports.
And there is probably good reason, suggests Kathleen Carley, a computer science expert at Carnegie Mellon University quoted in the NPR story. Carley points out that there a variety of other competing systems that are also available for the Army’s use.
The challenge for military officials, however, is how to balance the needs of vocal warfighter proponents, who want more of what works for them in the battlefield now, against the broader need to select software that may be a better platform choice over the long run.
The issue is reminiscent of the Tactical Ground Reporting (TIGR) system, a web-based collaboration software application that was quickly embraced by troops, using rugged laptops, to update and share daily intelligence updates. The system made it simple to assemble and issue updated battlefield reports, mashing together maps, photography, and field notes detailing the latest information on hostile strongholds.
Part of TIGR’s success stemmed from being an experimental program, allowing it to flourish quickly before it became a program of record, and subject to greater bureaucratic oversight.
Clearly, military leaders need to put DoD’s global information network needs ahead of the popular applications. What appears to be missing in the debate, however, is the fact that software is rapidly transforming from a product into a service.
Unlike weapons or vehicles, software is something that military procurement officials can increasingly buy by the drink, rather than as an asset that it has to own and maintain, according to IT experts who work regularly with the military, including VMware Public Sector Vice President, Aileen Black.
While that doesn’t negate the need to ensure that software applications work interoperably and reliably across military networks, it does mean that the military can test, deploy and terminate applications more quickly. That is a significant difference from the mulit-year weapons and support programs that military acquisition rules were originally designed for.
And it’s also a crucial distinction for warfighters in Afghanistan who may at times wonder whether the Army will finally resolve which anti-IDE software and other application programs to buy before the war is over.