Most service members understand that a limited supply of money, time, and personnel must be allocated to address the multiple challenges facing the Department of Defense (DoD) as it endeavors to modernize its military.
However, many may not realize the extent to which bureaucratic red tape and antiquated legacy systems — some dating back to World War II — are slowing down DoD efforts.
In this article, we will explore six common pitfalls complicating U.S. military modernization efforts, including why they are so problematic, and explain how you can help avoid them in your own organization if you want to accelerate your digital transformation.
1. Lack of Standardization
The biggest roadblock to military modernization is that the US government and defense leaders have an outdated vision of how technology will be used in the future. As a result, a number of policies, rules and regulations are holding back the DoD.
One example is the outdated policy for purchasing electronic equipment known as the “commercial source” requirement (CSR). The CSR, first established in the 1950s, stipulates that all DoD purchases must be made from vendors who sell to the general public.
In theory, this policy is intended to encourage procurement through established, licensed vendors and ensure that any government purchase is at least partly audited by the public. However, CSR has several significant downsides that make it an obstacle to modernization and a major liability for defense leaders.
First and foremost, it is outdated. Other nations have modernized their procurement processes and abandoned the commercial source requirement long ago.
Next, it is inflexible. If a defense leader needs a new piece of technology that has not yet been manufactured, such as a system for analyzing warfare data, but the CSR prevents them from purchasing it from a commercial vendor, they have only two options: purchase the item from their own budget at the expense of the taxpayer or wait for the item to become available on the open market.
Third, it is costly. The CSR forces DoD buyers to negotiate with the private sector and incurs substantial costs to obtain the item, even if the item is produced in-house by the Defense Department’s own Science and Technology (S&T) organization.
2. Slow to Develop New Software
Modernization efforts are also hindered by a lack of urgency and slowness in the DoD’s approach to software development. When an organization as large and complex as the U.S. military needs new technology, it is highly likely that it has identified an immediate need.
Today, the military uses a wide variety of software, from the mundane (e.g., financial management systems) to the critical (e.g., the network that supports military operations). Modernization efforts raise the potential to create many new or rerouted network paths and also to require large investments in new hardware.
Unfortunately, the DoD lacks a single centralized organization to oversee software projects, track software development costs and make sure that the right people are assigned to the right projects. As a result, software modernization is often delayed, or new software projects are started without clear priorities. When it comes to new software development, it is neither efficient nor effective to develop new functionality that will never be used by the military.
3. Insufficient Networking Capabilities
Another problem hindering the DoD’s modernization efforts is a lack of connectivity between different components of the military’s computer network. For example, one component that experiences a lack of connectivity is the military’s supply chain.
The challenge is that military leaders need timely, accurate information about the availability of equipment and spare parts, but this data is usually recorded as paper forms. The problem gets worse as demand for military equipment increases, leading to more delays and errors.
Eventually, a critical shortage of equipment could happen, affecting the military’s ability to carry out its military operations. The military’s need for accurate data is not the only challenge they face. There is also a lack of connectivity between different components of the military’s computer network. For example, one component that experiences a lack of connectivity is the military’s supply chain.
The problem gets worse as demand for military equipment increases, leading to more delays and errors. Eventually, a critical shortage of equipment could happen, affecting the military’s ability to carry out its military operations.
4. Limited Availability of Capital for Upgrades
Finally, the U.S. military’s upgrade path is also an obstacle to modernization. The vast majority of equipment in the DoD’s inventory dates back to the 1980s. This includes computers and software that were originally designed for various military missions such as command and control, intelligence analysis, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The challenge is that many of these systems are no longer supported by the vendors who produced them, and the Defense Department does not have the money to replace them. The Pentagon has the plan to address many of these issues, but the road ahead is long and winding.
The Defense Department must first close its spending gap with the other services before it can focus on modernization. It also needs to find ways to increase funding for research and development while reducing waste in its operations — both areas where the DoD has struggled in recent years.
5. Legacy Systems Are Basically Untouchable
At the end of the day, the biggest problem hindering the DoD’s modernization efforts is that the majority of its computers are still running outdated software and running on hardware from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
In other words, the military hasn’t upgraded its computers in almost 40 years. The result is a huge backlog of upgrades that need to be done to bring these systems up to date with the latest technology. These upgrades will be essential for the DoD to carry out modern military operations in the future. This is a problem that the DoD has been aware of for some time now. In fact, the department has been working to upgrade its legacy systems since at least 2011.
But despite these efforts, there are still more than 1 million computers in the military that run on Windows XP—an operating system that hasn’t even been supported by Microsoft since April 2014. This means that the DoD has been forced to continue spending millions of dollars on security patches and other updates for these systems.
In fact, the department’s budget request for the fiscal year 2018 shows that it expects to spend an additional $2.7 billion in upgrading its IT infrastructure over the next five years. This includes efforts to “update legacy applications and operating systems, improve cybersecurity and data sharing capabilities, modernize its data centers, and enhance network resiliency.”
6. No central source for buying products
While the first four issues are less obvious and more difficult to solve, they are all obstacles that can be overcome if leaders in the military and government will only approach the problem from a new perspective.
Simply put, the biggest barrier to modernizing the DoD is the same as the problem: people. The DoD needs to create an environment in which people feel empowered to make a change. People must be trained to do new work and work better together in new ways. And they must be empowered to make decisions based on data and insights, rather than relying on intuition.
Every organization—whether it is a department of a city, or an organization as large as the DoD—faces unique challenges. However, the six obstacles described above are common to every operation and organization, regardless of their size. These challenges are all interrelated, and addressing any one of them can help alleviate the impact of the others.
These challenges are all interrelated, and addressing any one of them can help alleviate the impact of the others.