You’d think that after cutting $330 billion of unnecessary weapons spending out of the Pentagon budget last year, defense secretary Robert Gates would have claimed almost all of the low-hanging fruit. Well, guess again: the military services still are buying all sorts of exotic gadgets that aren’t necessary or affordable. Like a next-generation jeep — excuse me, a “joint light tactical vehicle” — that will sell for over half a million dollars a pop. And a second engine for the single-engine F-35 fighter that both the Bush and Obama administrations agreed was a waste money. The advent of serious deficit reduction in the new Congress seated next year is a perfect opportunity to rethink these projects.
A good place to start might be the Navy’s utterly superfluous Next Generation Enterprise Network, which will waste a huge amount of time and money to bust up a network that took ten years to optimize and replace it with something far less secure. The network being replaced is called the Navy Marine Corps Intranet. It’s a vast shore-based system that serves over 700,000 sailors and other Department of the Navy personnel. The system used to be controversial, because the service outsourced its biggest network for ten years, and sailors initially didn’t like the results. But now the vast majority of users say they are satisfied with it, and other defense agencies are moving to embrace similarly integrated models for their own networks.
So what does the Navy do? It decides to start over, breaking up the various functions of the world’s biggest intranet and parceling them out to diverse contracting teams which it will oversee. This move will eventually cost the service billions of dollars, and not just because of all the equipment and workers it will need to acquire that had been provided by the incumbent contractor. The hidden cost is that when you take a mature information network that is run end-to-end by a single integrator and fracture it into pieces, you introduce security gaps that cyber criminals and spies can exploit.
That’s a stunning mistake, since the service readily concedes that the Navy Marine Corps Intranet is the most secure network it currently has. It has proven largely impervious to intrusions, even while hackers were making off with terabytes of information from other defense networks. So there must be some other problem with the current system, right? Apparently not: the NGEN program manager says the existing intranet “is very robust today — we have good security with it, very good performance.” Well then, why is NGEN needed at all? Why blow up a successful program after spending ten years and billions of dollars to get it right?
This is the kind of wasteful undertaking that makes one suspect that people in the Pentagon have never heard about the federal budget crisis. Even as the rest of the government studies how to implement more integrated models for purchasing information services, the Navy decides it has the money to build and operate a balkanized new network whose prospective users are already being well served. And we wonder why the government has to borrow a billion more dollars every six hours.
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