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Disruptive by Design: The Pros and Cons of Privatizing Military Comms

Policymakers should weigh both the opportunities and challenges of privatizing military communications.

By Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA

The first lesson of economics is scarcity. When supply is low and demand high, prices soar, and some will go without. In the U.S. Defense Department, both the demands and costs for reliable, resilient, and robust communication services continue to grow. As the services consider options to privatize aspects of communication, both the opportunities and challenges require thorough consideration.

Ideally, privatization improves efficiency. The Defense Department, like most large organizations, suffers from years of accumulated new starts. One-off programs, rapid fieldings and homegrown projects have left communication closets and CONEX containers filled with aging equipment and long sustainment tails. Failure to deliver a global enterprise solution for network and data services also has challenged consolidation and unification. Furthermore, homegrown helpdesks and service menus vary in standards and confuse subscribers. Paying for a commercial provider to coalesce programs within a unified set of technologies and standards should reduce waste.

And reducing waste has become more critical with a national security strategy aimed at countering near-peer threats. The exorbitant expense of maintaining hodgepodge collections of systems and services limits opportunity. Adversaries competing in high-stakes, high-tech races force the department to innovate and integrate new technologies during heightened tensions and an accelerating security dilemma. Privatization, some believe, will improve management of these efforts. They argue that life-cycle management experts can harness lessons learned from industry to enhance innovation.

The reasoning continues that the capital regained from reduced waste, combined with improved life-cycle management plans, should culminate in a more agile approach to rapid technology adoption. From software-as-a-service to system-as-a-service and service-as-a-service, the department could simply follow industry’s lessons learned and outsource problems to those who can do the job better and cheaper.

Those who argue against privatization cite a loss of freedom of maneuver. With privatization, control over military communications may be less governed by the legal bonds of a chain of command and more by legally enforced contracts. The failure of service members to comply or meet the mission may impact careers or even result in legal action. Failure for contracted services to comply leads to litigation. Privatization of communications will surely risk reduction in control over the mission. At worst, the military may find itself utterly beholden to commercial entities over which it has little purview.

Recent internal political campaigns to limit military projects by employees at Google and Microsoft, as well as notable protests on high-tech college campuses, reveal a distrust of the military by some high-tech workers. Should a national security crisis arise that a majority of tech workers oppose, then they may refuse to work, or worse, pose internal risks.

Finally, as city-states in the Middle Ages learned, outsourcing security to others risks hollowing out society’s security apparatus. A high-tech workforce that can both generate commercial benefits for society and help maintain elite military capabilities serves as a U.S. strength. However, when a generation of military leaders comes to rely upon others for expertise to solve communication problems, they miss the opportunity to enshrine those lessons within their ranks. Should all communications be outsourced, the department risks creating incentives for military members to depart for more attractive, and perhaps better-paying work. The Defense Department once attracted new recruits through access to gained skills seldom found elsewhere. Should the department elect to privatize military communications, it should find a way to continue to attract and retain talent.

In closing, policymakers should weigh both the opportunities and challenges of privatizing military communications. We will likely need to take the good with the bad. Risks can be mitigated but not ignored.


Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA, created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations with which he has had an affiliation.