A Secretary Goes a Courtin'
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 1, 1999
There was a time when research and development contracts for the Defense Department and other federal agencies drove American technology. Now, commercial and educational organizations outspend and outshine the government in almost every way, especially in information technologies.
Once the best and brightest graduates of computer science departments flocked to nuclear and military laboratories to fight the Cold War. Today they go to the Internet and entertainment industries.
Just 15 years ago, the Pentagon purchased 60 percent of the information products produced in the United States. Today, it purchases less than 2 percent. The result is that the military has less influence on what the commercial infotech sector is doing, and many worry that this represents a national security problem.
So, despite the Justice Department's war with Microsoft, Defense Secretary William Cohen made a pilgrimage to Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters in February to get to know the civilian dynamos better and to build support for military spending.
Cohen was also looking for a better understanding on the part of the digital elite for what the military says it needs. "The soldiers in the high-tech revolution do not fully understand or appreciate the soldiers in camouflage," he argued. "The security they protect is your security. The prosperity they enable is your prosperity."
But this was not just a fund-raising message. As the dynamic information industry forges ahead, it increasingly leaves the military in its wake. Certainly the military can use some off-the-shelf products. But commercial systems are not necessarily built with militarily important characteristics, such as security or battlefield ruggedness. And calling tech support is not a tenable option when systems fail in warfare.
How will the military ensure global coverage, flexibility and priority in a crunch, since it increasingly relies on commercial systems and networks? The question is causing a lot of fretting at the top of the military and government, and is behind the current emphasis on protecting the U.S. civilian infrastructure -- electricity and communications networks -- from terrorism and attack.
Last year, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board recommended that the military work harder to forge early and more meaningful partnerships with commercial providers and industry, even offering seed money and an early revenue stream to ensure Pentagon operating requirements.
The board cited as an example the danger that a commercial satellite system, Teledesic, might be unusable by the Defense Department because the design and business model is based on zero government customers or requirements.
This is the most jarring change of the post-Cold War era: The secretary of defense visits an industrial colossus and does not feel at home!
In his lunchtime speech, Cohen likened Microsoft and the Pentagon to associated superpowers, "the two most striking examples of American success -- areas in which the United States holds unquestioned superiority."
The secretary's talk included the boilerplate litany of overextension and sacrifice to describe America's armed forces. And there was a healthy dose of threats, traditional and newfangled, to justify the extra $110 billion the administration is asking Congress for over the next six years.
But this is an operation on an unfamiliar battlefield, that of courting industry that is neither dependent on, nor particularly intersted in, matters military. Thus Cohen's embryonic message to Microsoft -- that the high tech industry is a selfish and ungrateful appendage of the national security -- doesn't do the Pentagon any good. For despite the fact the Pentagon is Microsoft's largest single customer (about $300 million annually), the corporation is hardly dependent on either a Defense Department hand or handout.
The whole approach, to impress upon the information elite that they should sacrifice or deviate for national security, is fraught with danger. The wired crowd already perceives that Washington is a rathole; if confronted, Redmond and other Silicon Alleys would likely question why we are still spending what we are on defense at all.
"Just as software that only a few years ago was state-of-the art is now nearly antiquated," Cohen told the Microsoft crowd, "so will our military lose its dominant edge without significant investment."
It is a lame argument. Anyone who has ever pondered an upgrade in software or hardware knows that sinking feeling of being trapped, the suspicion of being ill-informed, that wondering whether the new is really needed to do the job or is just a newer version of a toy that already works quite well.
That same thought process could be applied to virtually any new airplane or doodad the military says it so desperately "needs."
William M. Arkin, author of "The U.S. Military Online," is a leading expert on national security and the Internet. He lectures and writes on nuclear weapons, military matters and information warfare. An Army intelligence analyst from 1974-1978, Arkin currently consults for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, MSNBC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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