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Military Readies IT Acquisition Reforms

Deputy Defense secretary William Lynn says procurement reforms should be ready by the spring.

The Department of Defense is well on its way toward creating proposals for modifying the way it buys information technology and will have them ready for Congressional review by April, deputy secretary of defense William J. Lynn III said Thursday at the Defense IT Acquisition Summit.

In a speech, Lynn said that it is unacceptable that, on average, it takes 81 months from the time a major DoD IT project is funded to the time its operational, and that systems are often several generations old by the time they finally go live. "We will continue to win on the battlefield only by continuing to use game-changing technologies," he said.

One of the main problems, Lynn implied, is that the military buys IT systems just like they've long bought weapons systems, but IT systems are significantly different than weapons systems in two critical respects.

First, traditional weapons systems have been developed in classified settings, while commercial vendors develop most of the IT the military uses. Second, Lynn said, "weapons systems depend on stable requirements, but IT changes faster than requirements, budgets, or acquisition milestones."

Lynn also bemoaned the fact that all too often, the military's IT projects fail to take into consideration the preferences of the end users, the soldiers. Today's soldiers are digital natives who all but demand new technologies and are very capable of using them, he said. "Unless we build systems for tech-savvy soldiers, we will limit ourselves in fights against our enemies," he said.

In his speech, Lynn laid out a number of changes that might be made to defense IT acquisition, including more strongly encouraging commercial off-the-shelf software use, emphasizing the use of open protocols, adopting more service-oriented architectures, focusing on upgrading software and systems rather than simply replacing them, and even using cloud computing where feasible. He also said the military needs to make better use of supplemental appropriations bills to shorten contract lengths and better meet changing requirements. "We're going to have to develop a suite of approaches," he said.

Observers have long argued that the Defense Department needed to change the way it buys IT. For example, a bill passed this year allows the DoD to try out new procurement processes, the Defense Science Board issued a report in April urging significant changes to IT procurement, and federal CIO Vivek Kundra has also pushed for change.

Still, procurement reform won't be easy. The DoD is both massive and massively complex. "The challenge is that we're trying to turn a ship that is a very large ship," said former Navy CIO and DoD deputy CIO Marv Langston, now principal of consulting firm Langston Associates, during a panel discussion after Lynn's speech.

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