Open source and military procurement don't mix

Open source and military procurement don't mix

Summary: The whole idea of open source and the military opens up a broader debate about make-or-buy decisions, one with big implications not just for the budget but for how we run the Defense Department.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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Mike Mullen, chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. MilitaryThe U.S. House has inserted language advocating open source into the latest military procurement bill.

But it will take more than a report, or rhetoric, to make open source happen for our Armed Forces, as I learned while covering the VA's troubles at ZDNet Healthcare.

(To the right, current joint chief chair Admiral Mike Mullen. Salute, maggot.)

Open source requires a do it yourself (DIY) attitude, and our military does not have one. The habits of procurement, buy not make, were ingrained long before Dick Cheney ever took the reins at Halliburton Corp.

Say you are building a house, and face a choice between going to Home Depot and hiring a crew or just signing a contractor. The first choice costs less money, but the second may lead to a better built house.

That's the nice way of putting it.

Or look at it from a General's perspective. You can sign contracts for parts or bigger contracts for systems. The latter course is not only easier, it makes you a virtual Congressman, subject to the same pleasures and temptations.

After a long career spent doing, simple buying is a better gig.

So the Pentagon buys systems, and when it needs something done it contracts out. That's the mentality.

A proprietary system can be managed easily under a contract. No one in the military need worry about how it's built or what it does. So those skills atrophy, disappear.

Then open source comes along. While there are some vendors, like IBM, which offer a soup-to-nuts "we'll handle it" approach with open source components, procurement officers don't see the advantage. IBM absorbs the cost savings as profit.

To really take advantage of open source you need IT experts who can do their own programming and de-bugging. Those skills are in short supply within today's military.

The whole idea of open source and the military opens up a broader debate about make-or-buy decisions, one with big implications not just for the budget but for how we run the Defense Department.

That's a debate politicians and advocates may be happy to have. With two wars to fight, and more possibly on the way, it's one the military would rather put off.

But for how long?

Topic: Open Source

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  • Horses for courses

    [i]To really take advantage of open source you need IT experts who can do their own programming and de-bugging. Those skills are in short supply within today?s military.[/i]

    For those of us who remember the 60s (thus proving we weren't there) and the enormous military with few soldiers, this isn't altogether a bad thing. Too many uniformed plumbers and eventually you have senior staff who are more concerned with toilet tanks than main battle tanks.

    There is a notion that uniformed services should, as much as possible, consist of those who are prepared to fight or at least go on short notice to support fighters. Support services that [u]can[/u] be provided by civilians should be. Carried too far, of course, this would end us up with troops in the field going hungry because the canteen contractor got left behind.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • And if Blackwater soldiers are less expensive?

      What if they're also better on average than uniformed service personnel because Blackwater has hired away only the best?

      Agreed in general, but should there be limits on contracting out?
      Anton Philidor
      • Blackwater soldiers are better than our troops?

        Watch the spit fly on that one, Anton.
        DanaBlankenhorn
        • Blackwater soldiers often are our troops.

          One difficulty with retention of highly skilled soldiers is that pay from private contractors is substantially better. And of course the contractors know from the record the quality of their hires.
          Anton Philidor
          • Pay has very little to with contracting out

            From one who has served on both sides of the fence:

            Contracting out would die a horrible death as soon as the military stopped training and building the skills needed to do the work.

            Blackwater is a perfect example. The Blackwater soldiers learned their skills and gained their knowledge of how to do things while in the military. That Blackwater was able to skim some of the better soldiers is the norm.

            Working as a contractor at your old military job is seldom a better deal than actually being in the military. Contractors can't afford to pay to train you to anything else besides what you were hired to do - or they lose the contract renewal. So when the need for your skill disappears in a few years (when the system or situation changes), so does the need for you. Comptetitive contracting also keeps a lid on wages, especially when everybody knows you have a military pension as a partial safety net.

            The last point is in the article - how does the government retain the core compentency to even supervise contractors, much less engineer systems with contract assistance, when the system is being contracted/out-sourced?

            But Congress much prefers to shovel dollars at contractors (who make major campaign contributions) to enlarging the military support structure (who do not make major campaign contributions). This results in the ever-present constant pressure to contract out any non-fighting military function (or at the very least, civilianize it).

            Given their druthers, most military leaders would rather retain many support functions, especially the more complex ones, in house. Ignoring the obvious empire-building reasons, flexibility is the biggest gain by keeping a support function in the military.

            just my experiences
            thinking about consequences
          • Reason?

            Accepting that the "Blackwater soldiers learned their skills and gained their knowledge of how to do things while in the military", why would any potential hire leave the military and join Blackwater to do the same duties?

            I had read that the pay was significantly better and that at least some contract employees thought the administration an improvement. So I was surprised to read, "Working as a contractor at your old military job is seldom a better deal than actually being in the military." Even with salary plus pension?
            Anton Philidor
      • DOD may have to pay more

        Field work should still be done by uniformed personnel within the regular chain of command (easier to control and easier to fix responsibility) rather than by outsiders whose first loyalty is to the company. If that means the military has to pay more to get better people, then so be it.

        It's absolutely asinine for government to pay private security firms for MP work (or civilian police work, for that matter). Core governmental functions should always be performed by regular employees, and there's very little that's more core than police work.
        John L. Ries
      • Gee, Anton

        [i]Agreed in general, but should there be limits on contracting out?[/i]

        You mean, it might be possible to go to far:

        [i]Carried too far, of course, this would end us up with troops in the field going hungry because the canteen contractor got left behind.[/i]
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • An army travels on its stomach.

          Because his cooks were French, Napoleon didn't have to observe that soldiers are more satisfied when the food doesn't reek:

          The Natick Soldier Center is working on a project to make rations more palatable to grunts by embedding savory aromas into the food's packaging. If the food smells better, the thinking goes, the soldiers will be more likely to eat their MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat, and will be better able to carry out their grueling tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

          The effort -- tongue-pleasingly titled Active Package Olfaction to Increase Soldier Acceptance of Field Rations -- could ultimately affect more than soldiers' appetites, however. Smells have been known to influence people's perception, energy and ability to learn. This project might be the beginning of a military foray into aromatherapy.

          http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2003/08/60094


          The canteen operator can probably be well integrated into manoeuvres. And might be considered an improvement over the armed services' own cuisine without funding a major research effort.

          Rather than operational inconveniences - if any - are there military functions which shouldn't in principle be let to contractors?
          Anton Philidor
    • Correct

      The job of the folks in uniform is to fight (or at least to be ready to fight), but there are civilian employees and contractors (many of them veterans) who can and have done the support work for many years. Certainly, there should be uniformed techies to maintain things in the field (while the civvies are safely home), but the focus should be on fighting.
      John L. Ries
  • Would the congressional language advocating open source...

    ... be advocacy for IBM, then? As you observed, the most likely use of open source would be under the control of a contractor, and what contractor better than IBM?

    Perhaps the provision should be called an earmark for IBM.
    Anton Philidor
    • It could be interpreted that way

      I don't think it should be. Making this merely a
      choice between vendors is creating a false choice.

      Make or buy is the choice I'm talking about. I think
      we save by making, and don't lose quality. It's just
      easier to buy.
      DanaBlankenhorn
      • Likely results.

        Which is more likely in the current circumstances, making or buying? If buying, then whatever the ideal solution may be, the expectable outcome is IBM or its ilk receiving a large, profitable contract.
        Anton Philidor
  • Custom programming

    The Pentagon's been paying people to do it for years, and it put food on my family's table from the time my father went off of active duty in the Marine Corps (when I was 7 years old) until well after I graduated from high school (if not college). At the very least, I think it would be a good use of taxpayer funds to pay a little extra for access to the source code of any software more expensive than the usual office stuff so it can be maintained and customized by whomever is willing to accept the contract.

    I hope that's what the Defense Department actually does, but it's been a long time since I've paid attention (civilian applications have generally put the food on my table).
    John L. Ries
    • Why not just increase the civilian workforce?

      Why insist everything has to be a contract? Yes, I
      know, civilians work under contract, and enlistment
      contracts are contracts, too.

      But why not just have full time people whose job it is
      to make this stuff, using whatever components are
      available? That way, at least the military owns what
      it's using -- it controls it.

      Those are real advantages. For security and national
      defense. Not to mention for the taxpayer.
      DanaBlankenhorn
      • No objections

        As I noted elsewhere, you have more control over the people you pay directly than you do over outside contractors (couple that with institutional loyalty). And even if civil service rules were relaxed somewhat (it really should be easier to fire people than it is), government work is still an attractive career option, so it should still be easy to get good people.
        John L. Ries
    • What's the alternative?

      Once an IT department with very elaborate and essential software decided to cancel the contract with the original supplier. In return, the department received a termination date for using the software. Someone had long ago decided to rent rather than purchase, despite all the subsequent work.

      The individual responsible had long ago left the organization, but efforts to track him down probably continue.
      Anton Philidor
      • That would need to be written into the contract

        There's no way military or other essential government functions should ever be at the mercy of a software vendor who can cut off licensing. Perpetual right to use should always be part of the contract. The feds certainly have sufficient money and influence to insist on it.
        John L. Ries
  • Um...are you forgetting...

    ...that DARPA does a whole lot of this? It holds contests, but also fosters its own development. The original internet development, for example...one which we all know full well, right? I don't see how anyone can claim the military cannot do open source - given that the feds have been huge in open source!
    Techboy_z
    • Good point

      Forgot about that too (but I'm a military contractor brat, as noted in a previous post). Goes with Dana's argument that military IT should rely less on outside vendors and more on civilian employees.
      John L. Ries