Increase IT investment to meet defense needs

By Stanton D. Sloane
Monday, January 10, 2011

Our leaders in Washington will argue about what the last election meant long into the new year, but their mandate is clear: Spend the American people's money more wisely. The power shift on Capitol Hill offers a perfect opportunity to do just that, while positioning America to meet tomorrow's challenges instead of yesterday's.

Consider that we are building fighter jets that cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. Or that we're spending billions on large naval fleets. And yet the most pressing daily threats we face come from stateless terrorists, small bands of insurgents and malicious hackers. We could mass our army, but our enemies aren't on the old battlefield awaiting us. They are online, hidden in caves and mud huts plotting out of our view. What is required for today's threats is as different from yesterday's as are the enemies we face -- enemies who employ simple, inexpensive methods to attack us.

Our new Congress need only listen to our defense leaders -- we can no longer afford to divert finite resources away from what is most important. The Cold War is over. As Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright recently put it: "[O]ur governance is locked in an industrial construct and yet we're [in] an IT world."

"We haven't quite figured out how to square that," Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as saying at a Nov. 4 symposium in New Orleans. "Frankly, it's easy to get a $50 billion grant for ships, airplanes or spacecraft. It's impossible to get $1 billion for an IT system. And yet, that's where our leverage is."

It is an old saw in Washington that the easiest way to keep your big defense program funded is to manufacture its various parts in all 435 congressional districts. And in fact, many of our large defense platforms depend on manufacturing in dozens of states, building in a dedicated congressional constituency determined to preserve those programs no matter the cost or need.

IT systems don't need as many different parts as a fighter jet or aircraft carrier. These systems may not look fearsome or dynamic -- but it is function, not form, that dictates the tools we need. And our defense leaders are asking for these new tools.

IT investments represent the most focused way to identify, target and tackle the most pressing security and defense issues. By combining multiple streams of information and analysis, we forge new levels of collaboration among agencies and nations. By leveraging our hardware with actionable information and analysis, we make our weaponry far more potent -- and are able to maintain them at full readiness, requiring less to be even more effective. When properly deployed, IT focuses resources, reduces risks and lowers overall costs. IT investment is a force multiplier many times over.

We have the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to embrace new ideas and work together toward common goals. The added bonus for the Washington region is that while we don't build warships or fighter planes here, we do build the world's sharpest IT systems -- tapping the vast local reservoir of know-how. The D.C. area is teeming with expertise and talent and the kind of capabilities that produce the best IT systems. This is a natural fit in more ways than one for Washington.

Now is the time to move in the right direction by paying heed to what our military leaders need and not what we have gotten used to giving them. It's time for us to get serious and tackle this issue head on, and soon -- before we've spent ourselves dry on yesterday's provisions.

Stanton D. Sloane is president and chief executive of SRA International, a Fairfax-based IT services and solutions provider to the government.

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