Military brass: Acquisition rules can't keep up with IT needs

FAR rules make it difficult to keep networks evolving to meet emerging needs, according to generals at the LandWarNet conference.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Cumbersome acquisition rules designed more for building weapons systems and computing platforms are posing a growing obstacle to rapidly evolving information technology networks, members of a panel of generals said at the LandWarNet conference here this week.

“One of the biggest challenges within the Department of Defense is ourselves and the FAR [Federal Acquisition Rules],” said Brig. Gen. George Allen, director of command, control, communications and computers for the Marine Corps.

Allen cited the frustration his organization experienced in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 in installing the largest communications and data network ever built by the Marines. The project used the latest available technologies “from an acquisition point of view, but which in fact were four years old,” he said. “We had to buy new Dell servers and Cisco routers to get the network to work” as intended.

“When you’re talking switchers and routers, they change every six months,” Allen said, but FAR rules don’t allow the necessary flexibility to keep networks evolving to meet emerging needs.

“We buy IT systems the way we buy aircraft carriers,” he said, noting that contracting rules need to be changed for basic technology refreshes.

In another case, efforts to participate in the Joint Network Node were also hampered by FAR rules, Allen said. “We couldn’t get on the JNN because of concerns that small businesses would sue us” based on contracting requirements, he said. “We had to buy off of different contracts” as a consequence, Allen said, resulting in a missed savings opportunities. “The biggest thing we could do would be to change the FAR.”

U.S. forces aren’t alone. Brigadier John Thomas MBE, ADC Headquarters signal officer in chief, speaking for coalition forces in the United Kingdom, also lamented the compromises contracting constraints place on the British military’s IT vision.

“Acquisition understands platforms because they can count them, but not networks,” Thomas said.

“We know we’re never going to have the newest thing on the street,” said Maj. Gen. Walter Zink II, commander, Operational Command Post 1, U.S. Army North.

As armed forces increasingly need to share information, Zink said, it will be important to work toward “commonality” of systems for operators.

Wyatt Kash is editor of Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.