Magazine article National Defense

Purchasing Power: 'Milspec' Technology Makes a Comeback

Magazine article National Defense

Purchasing Power: 'Milspec' Technology Makes a Comeback

Article excerpt

A rising propensity to "militarize" the Defense Department's information networks will be making it more difficult for the Pentagon to take advantage of cutting-edge technologies from the commercial sector, say analysts and industry experts.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Pentagon came under huge pressure to cut costs and expedite the design and deployment of new technologies by relying on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. The conventional wisdom was that the private sector already was spending billions of research-and-development dollars on new technologies and the Pentagon should capitalize on those private-sector investments.

The 1990s also saw a move to cut back on the use of military specifications--or "milspecs"--in areas where commercial technology was available. Although milspecs were necessary in the design of specialized military gear such as tanks or submarines, Pentagon officials concluded that it was wasteful to spend billions of dollars on overdesigned custom products if there were comparable systems already available in the private sector. At the time, the Defense Department was trying to live clown the infamous milspec-compliant $400 hammers and $800 toilet seats.

The pendulum began to swing in the other direction after the 9/11 attacks and the start of the U.S. war on terrorism. The appetite for cheaper off-the-shelf technologies somewhat diminished as the emphasis shifted to security at all costs. The enormous increases to the Pentagon's budget also removed the incentives to seek lower cost technologies.

Although many of the Pentagon's major acquisition projects employ commercial technologies, industry forecasts point to an expansion of milspecs in military systems, particularly in the areas of information technologies, command-and-control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Collectively, these systems account for more than $80 billion in the Pentagon's fiscal year 2009 budget.

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This market appears to be heading toward "increased militarization, customization and systems integration," says a recent study by the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association.

Fear of intruders and hackers has reached new heights in recent months and also gives Pentagon buyers more reasons to distrust technologies that were not customized to military specifications.

"The cyber problem is one of the reasons why the Defense Department won't take off-the-shelf technology ... It won't meet the National Security Agency certification," says Tim LaFleur, a retired Navy vice admiral who is now an industry consultant.

The Navy's multibillion-dollar programs to deploy information systems aboard ships and ashore illustrate the shift to customization. Navy officials have often stressed that the goal is to acquire commercial off-the-shelf "enterprise" technologies but contractors have found that in reality most of the hardware and software applications require some level of military-unique designs.

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"Just about every application needs some form of customization, especially for security," says Patricia Tracey, a retired Navy vice admiral and vice president of EDS Corp. The company is the prime contractor for the Navy-Marine Corps information network known as NMCI. The Navy is now seeking to move to the next generation of NMCI. The technical specifications will be far more demanding because the Navy wants systems that have "multi-level" security so it can selectively share information with other navies or civilian agencies. …

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