August 6, 2015
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and Under Secretary Frank Kendall have dispatched their team to liaise with the worthies of Silicon Valley. Secretary Carter is soon expected there on a goodwill visit as well, and the Pentagon leadership seems serious. As Defense One reported, the new office at Moffett Field will be headed by George Duchak, an engineer from DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Brian Hendrikson, a SEAL admiral out of the Naval Academy and Harvard Business School. Those are impressive credentials, and I wish them well, but I am expecting little.

California’s Silicon Valley—as well as the clusters of informatic innovation on Massachusetts’ Route 128, in the Texas Hill Country, in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, and anywhere else—shouldn’t yet be impressed with the Pentagon’s avowed enthusiasm, because the regulatory impediments are too great. Firms in all these places are clearly worried about the Defense Department’s Borg-like approach to their intellectual property. They’re immediately put off by the Mickey Mouse profit and overhead metrics monitored by its accountants. But the worst may be the bad deal that they’ll continue to get from the combination of the Truth In Negotiations Act (TINA) and their ongoing enthusiasm for lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) contracting.

With the Orwellian-named TINA, the government expects its bidders to totally open their books, just to bid, and to certify under criminal penalty that they’ve gotten everything right. With that sort of asymmetric pressure on margins, the smartest computer people aren’t going to gravitate towards government contractors. They’re going to keep going to Google, Apple, and wherever they can earn twice as much for fewer headaches.

LPTA is newer, but perhaps as pernicious. As National Defense magazine cites Timothy Wickham of the consultancy Avascent, the Defense Department opted in its 2013 fiscal year for LPTA competitions to resolve about 36 percent of its contract awards over $1 million. This was up from 26 percent in 2009, and as Wickam put it, “LPTA is a real killer” for firms that actually care about engineering acumen.

To what does this naturally lead? We should not expect officers cycling through three-year assignments and political appointees to “own the technical baseline,” as the US Air Force likes to say, of their enterprise information systems. Whatever the excuse, Katherine Archuleta, the former director of the Office of Personnel Management, seems to have considered COBOL "technically acceptable” for record keeping applications. She seems to have considered total access to every record from one machine by a contractor with a single password to be adequate security. Maybe she simply didn’t know. Maybe the people in the Bush Administration before her didn’t know. Either way, the procurement leadership will continue to lack the best advice on information security as its builds or repairs systems, simply because it will only be paying for lowest-bidder talent.

So what should we make of Kendall’s dispatching SEALs and DARPA guys to the West Coast? A friend in the Navy Department describes that move as “trying to outrun the intercept missile by boosting the afterburner.” It looks impressive, but the technical limitations of the plane you’re flying just won’t get you there.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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