The Defense Department has pivoted its focus in recent years to competing with advanced, digitally enabled adversaries like China and Russia. With that, it has placed a greater premium on becoming proficient in the use of artificial intelligence and adopting a more data-driven approach to warfare through the concept of Joint All-Domain Command and Control.
But that vision for a technologically advanced U.S. military is at odds with the state of basic computing across the Department of Defense — one where it can take service members across the ranks anywhere from 10 minutes to close to an hour just to log on to their computers and access email.
This reality birthed a moment earlier this year when an open letter penned by Michael Kanaan went viral charging senior DOD leaders to “Fix Our Computers.”
“We’re the richest and most well-funded military in the world. I timed 1 hour and 20 minutes from logging in to Outlook opening today. Fix our computers,” Kanaan, a chief of staff of the Air Force fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and former co-chair of artificial intelligence for the Air Force, wrote in that letter published in January.
The letter is poetic in its prose, delivering the repeated refrain of “fix our computers” like an anthem for the disgruntled rank and file of the DOD.
“Want innovation? You lost literally HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of employee hours last year because computers don’t work. Fix our computers,” it said.
It concludes: “Ultimately, we can’t solve problems with the same tools that made them . . . and yet somehow fundamental IT funding is still an afterthought . . . it’s not a money problem, it’s a priority problem.” He signed it on behalf of “Every DoD Employee.”
The LinkedIn post alone got nearly 2,500 “reactions,” close to 400 comments and was shared more than 200 times.
It also got the attention of CIOs across the Pentagon.
Within days, DOD CIO John Sherman and Kelly Fletcher, his principal deputy CIO, responded with a note of their own, also signed by Air Force CIO Lauren Knausenberger, Army CIO Raj Iyer and Navy CIO Aaron Weis.
“The DoD and Military Department CIOs have taken the dialogue around the need to ‘fix our computers’ at DoD to heart,” it said. “We know there is a lot of work to do to make your user experience better, increase our #cybersecurity, and enable modern office productivity and analytical capabilities. We definitely haven’t been standing still on this point, however, and ensuring we deploy increasingly improving capabilities for you — the folks getting the work done every day in the Department — is our priority.”
This single open letter created an inflection point in challenging the DOD’s IT status quo and launched a movement that reached the C-Suite of the department and military services. Today it continues as an essential part of the conversation around the U.S. military’s efforts to become a more digital force.
A chorus of frustrated users
Kanaan wasn’t the only voice in the conversation. In fact, he was lightyears away from being the first to bemoan DOD’s IT enterprise. And after his letter, many more followed on, echoing his sentiment in their own ways.
Today people continue to do so, nearly eight months later — they’re optimistic for change, but still unsatisfied with the basic tools they’re provided to do the most basic of tasks.
“I don’t know that they’ve made any meaningful progress,” said Bryon Kroger, CEO of Rise8 and a co-founder of the Air Force’s Kessel Run, when asked what’s been done since January.
During his time in the Air Force, officials launched Kessel Run to try to attack the service’s troubles developing software in an efficient and secure way. So, challenges with basic compute disrupted his work regularly.
But, he said, “even people that aren’t doing software development can’t get their work done. It takes them two hours to log into their email — these crazy things that you think are jokes, but they’re not.”
Carl Young, former chief of staff within the Army’s Cyber Center of Excellence, said “it’s a dumb problem to have.”
On any given day, Young said, “it takes anywhere between five minutes and 45 minutes to boot your computer, you know — that no longer makes sense. There are tools capabilities and abilities to solve that problem.”
“The taxpayers don’t pay me to wait 30 minutes for my computer to boot,” he added. “So, there’s the frustration. I’ve got work to do. And frankly you the taxpayer are paying me to do that work.”
Former Air Force Chief Software Officer Nic Chaillan attributed the issue to the slow trickle of tech refresh across the world’s largest bureaucracy.
“The issue is the velocity of updating devices,” Chaillan said. “When you have so many devices out there, people need to rotate devices and different bases buy differently. There was a lot of legacy devices. And those were very, very problematic. So, I think what they’re dealing with is kind of this legacy … it’s just a matter of time for the devices to rotate. And many are prioritizing buying new devices and swapping and stuff. So, it’s already happening. It’s just, when you have, you know, 800,000 devices, it takes time. It’s just what it is — and COVID was not helpful because of the supply chain.”
But as the military moves forward with Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and new AI programs, waiting for new devices to arrive has created incongruities that lead to frustration, or worse.
Young called driving for this high-tech vision but failing to deliver capable basic IT “a logical inconsistency that would drive a lot of us crazy.”
“I think that not only adds to the frustration on a daily basis — which, you know, the jobs are frustrating enough — it also causes you at varying levels, and depending on your personality, to lose confidence in data to make decisions,” Young said. “And so now you still got senior leaders who prefer to use their gut [and] prefer to use instincts, because they don’t trust machines, they don’t trust the data.”
On top of that, it can drive bad cyber hygiene, he noted.
“If my government PC — and pick a classification level — isn’t working, I’m gonna find ways around it. And then I’m gonna, either through omission or commission, do things that aren’t safe … I will get in a hurry and make bad decisions about security because I’m frustrated with what I’ve been given. And that’s dangerous,” he said.
You don’t build a house without laying the foundation first. And many in the defense space feel the same about advanced technology.
“’I say it all the time. Why are we talking about AI and ML?” Kroger said. “We can’t even ship basic web apps. Our users are using whiteboards” instead of collaboration tools. “Why are we talking about AI and ML? Yeah, it’s important. Yeah, to compete with China, we’re gonna need to be able to do it. But before we can do AI and ML, we’ve got to be able to develop web apps. And before we can develop web apps, we need to have computers that work.”
A pledge to ‘get this right’
Though change may not be coming as quickly as some would like, top IT officials and service leaders continue to pledge they are dedicated to making it right.
“User experience is so important. Yes, I’ve read the ‘Fix Our Computers’ and had a good exchange with Michael Kanaan and others on that,” DOD CIO John Sherman said at FedTalks in August. “We’ve got to get this right.”
Sherman said this is something that’s personal to him, having been in the shoes of the service members who battle their devices every day.
“I’ve been the guy on the other end of this. If anyone knew me about 25 years ago at the Washington Navy Yard, I was the one running down the hall talking to the staff about why my electronic light table wasn’t working or I couldn’t get my database remarks in. So, I’ve been there. But what I will tell you is: Working with the other CIOs in the department, we are committed to getting after this — and indeed we are,” he said, pointing to recent remarks from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall about investments the Air Force is making in basic IT.
“And I can promise you other CIOs are too, because this is a multitude of efforts. We have to get after hardware, transport, the software that’s running on the system, all to enhance the user experience,” he added.
Indeed, though this is a department-wide issue, the Air Force has been perhaps the most vocal about tackling it. Kendall’s counterpart Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown spoke in depth about the Fix Our Computers movement at the Department of the Air Force Information Technology and Cyberpower conference in Alabama last month.
“You’re putting pressure on us, and you should,” Brown said when asked what airmen throughout the ranks are doing to improve IT and cyber. “We’ve got to deliver.”
Speaking to Kanaan’s open letter, Brown explained: “He said what many airmen are thinking. And good on ‘em. We’ve got to put pressure on ourselves to deliver. We can’t keep talking. And if I’ve had one frustration in the Pentagon, it’s the number of briefings I go to where people tell me we can do this or we can do this. I tell them, ‘Don’t tell me what we could do. Tell me what we’re gonna do.’ We’ve gotta drive action. And that to me is important. And this is where many of you come together.”
Air Force CIO Lauren Knausenberger had the metrics to back up Brown’s pledge, saying that since November, the service has boosted IT user satisfaction scores by 19 points, putting it on par with satisfaction levels during the peak of COVID when users were teleworking with reliable equipment from home.
“The department has gotten much more serious about replacing end-of-life equipment, and really cyber hygiene in general,” she said. “Culturally, we’re taking this a lot more seriously.”
The time lost on IT not working the first time has gone down by 50%, Knausenberger claimed, thanks in large part to improvements to applications like Microsoft Outlook and Adobe products.
Sherman, during a fireside chat at the Billington Summit, expressed that it’s a complex problem, one that requires “a team effort.”
“So a lot of you know…some of it’s hardware updates, some of its going to be the software running on the system,” he said. “Some of it can be the image that’s running on the computer there. Some of it is transport, both the long-haul piece [the Defense Information Systems Agency] provides and the on-base kind of last tactical mile bit of transport. And then finally the types of cybersecurity protocols we have running on the computer can conflict with one another, as you all know, if we don’t curate that very carefully.”
Sherman reiterated again that though the issues might seem unimportant to senior IT leaders in the DOD, it’s very much on all of their minds. “The one thing everyone needs to understand: We were those junior officers at one time. And so this resonates with us. There’s not a silver bullet to fix this. But rest assured we are going to fix it and keep our network safe.”
Starting with budget and talent
It’s that type of prioritization and dedication — namely through funding in the budget — to improving basic IT that could lead to change, several observers told DefenseScoop.
“It’s hard to get Congress to fund these things right now — they want to fund F-35s and AI and ML. And next we’ll be talking about blockchains,” Kroger said. “We still don’t have computers that work. That’s a budgeting problem. And everything else is just a reflection of that. In my mind, budget shows me your priorities.”
While Young said he has seen some improvements made, it all happens in siloes among “countless independent little elements” because on a larger scale, there’s no incentive to put resources against the issue.
“Those individuals are working to their abilities independently of one another to try to improve customer service,” he said. “So, there are incremental improvements that are occurring. But from a macro perspective, the budgetary and prioritization incentives aren’t in place for everybody to benefit.”
And others connect it back to the DOD’s struggle to find enough technical talent.
“You can’t expect someone to show up, that has never done it before, in the largest, most complex, siloed bureaucracy on the planet and succeed. It’s literally impossible,” Chaillan said about bringing in experienced talent from the commercial sector to tackle the issue.
He continued: “You have all these capabilities given to you by Congress to hire people from the outside, bring them in and come fix the stuff — do it! Make it a priority; don’t just talk about it.”
Heather Price, a contractor supporting Headquarters of the Department of the Army, likewise wants to take the “Fix Our Computers” conversation and spotlight the need for talent.
“I would just prioritize focusing on talent management before we focus on fixing our computers,” Price said. “We need to fix the [personnel] systems that we have in place to recruit and retain the next generation of talent or we will have all of these fancy high-tech computers, and no one to operate them.”
She continued: “Things like artificial intelligence and Joint All-Domain Command and Control are absolutely vital to our national security. But the foundation of everything we do has to be people. And until we take the focus that this Fix Our Computers movement has generated and shift it towards people, we’re still going to be at risk of falling behind.”
And then, there are some who would just like to watch the world burn. An airman recently made the mistake of seeking technical help on the Air Force’s “AF ALL” listserv — essentially an email group that reaches wide swaths of the service.
With an open opportunity to slam the service’s IT in front of a massive audience, another airman replied to that plea for technical help: “I really have no idea what your issue is or have a good solution to the problem, but here’s a shot anyway: Unplug device, head for second story, open window and throw it out the window, should get rid of the green screen.”