Top general says Defense Department IT in 'Stone Age'

Cartwright sees fault with proprietary systems

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was sharply critical Tuesday of the Defense Department's IT systems and said he sees much room for improvement.

Cartwright, who was speaking at the FOSE information technology conference here, said the DOD is sending increasing amounts of data, such as video, to soldiers on the battlefield, and it's beginning to build an architecture "that starts to take us where we need to be." But Cartwright quickly tempered that.

"Quite frankly, my feeling is -- at least being a never-satisfied person -- the department is pretty much in the Stone Age as far as IT is concerned," Cartwright said.

Cartwright cited problems with proprietary systems that aren't connected to anything else and are unable to quickly adapt to changing needs. "We have huge numbers of data links that move data between proprietary platforms -- one point to another point," he said.

The most striking example of an IT failure came during the second Gulf War, where the Marines and the Army were dispatched in southern Iraq.

"Thank God there was a river going north/south that could keep them separate because their radios wouldn't talk to each other," Cartwright said.

"It's crazy, we buy proprietary [and] we don't understand what it is we're buying into," he said. "It works great for an application, but then you come to conflict and you spend the rest of your time trying to modify it to actually do what it should do."

Modifying hardware "takes forever," and even modifying software can take an enormous amount time, the general said.

"If you want to open up the operational flight software in an airplane, think something along the lines of five years and at least $300 million just to open it up and close it, independent of what you want to try to do to improve it," Cartwright said. "We've got to find ways to do that better and more efficiently inside the Department of Defense for sure."

Cartwright is far from alone in faulting the government's process for buying and deploying IT.

Last week, outgoing federal CIO Vivek Kundra said the same IT contractors keep getting government business not because they are necessarily providing the best technology, but because they understand the procurement system. He described it as almost an "IT cartel" within federal IT.

A report last year by the House Armed Services Committee said the DOD has had a high IT failure rate. Congressional investigators found that only 16% of IT projects are completed on time and on budget, and 31% are canceled before completion. The remaining 53% are late and over budget with the typical cost growth exceeding the original budget by more than 89%, the report said.

As a result, the DOD "is unable to keep pace with the rate of IT innovation in the commercial marketplace," according to the House committee report. "By way of example, the private sector is able to deliver capabilities and incrementally improve on those initial deliveries on a 12-to-18-month cycle; defense IT systems typically take 48-60 months to deliver."

Cartwright said the DOD has to understand how to get to a "standard schema," move information across platforms, and get away from proprietary systems.

All of this is happening at a time when more and more data is being delivered to soldiers on the front lines, thanks in part to decreases in the cost of hardware and storage and an increase in the use of new media formats, such as full motion video.

"Today, a two-terabyte drive is a throwaway -- it's a consumable on the battlefield," Cartwright said, as a way of illustrating his point about the amount of data now being delivered. The cost of acquiring the processing power and storage needed to deliver that data is incredibly low, Cartwright said. The challenge is "moving it -- it's using it, it's analyzing it, and it's finding competitive advantage in it in ways that nobody else has," he said. "That really is the cutting edge out there that makes the difference between living and dying for many of these young Americans."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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