Open Source on the 21st Century Battlefield

by Brian Timoney


“Imagine if only the manufacturer of a rifle were allowed to clean, fix, modify or upgrade that rifle.”

As a fire-team leader in the Marine Corps infantry in the early 1990s, a GPS was considered too costly and sophisticated to entrust to a grubby, lowly corporal such as myself. That the collective GPS/wayfinding technology of a batallion twenty years ago is easily bested by the kit bandied about by the typical suburban Boy Scout troop today is another banal example of the pace of technological change. But what is more interesting to ponder is that GPS was a very 20th century example of a military technology that eventually migrated into the consumer space. What happens when innovation happens in the other direction?

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn has a bit where he contrasts the Pentagon’s 81-month IT procurement process with the development of a certain Apple product:  after two years, the former may have an approved budget, but “Steve Jobs is talking on his new iPhone. It’s not a fair trade.”  It’s this recognition of the importance of rapid iterations of innovation and deployment that make the recently released document Open Technology Development (OTD): Lessons Learned and Best Practices for Military Software such an interesting read.  Part philosophical overview, part detailed hashing out of gritty issues such as forkability and licensing, it takes as its premise that the US military is in need of a new “…way of developing, deploying and updating software-intensive systems that will match the tempo and ever-changing mission demands of military operations.”

The premier geospatial open source conference coming to Denver

The largest international gathering of open source geospatial professionals coming to Denver this September


An ever-quickening tempo and end-user requirements constantly in flux: does that describe your business environment? As a user of open source geospatial software (alongside commercial products) for the last half-dozen years, I’ve been fascinated by a decided shift in the rationale for open source adoption.

Hint: it’s no longer price.

Indeed, in the OTD document where they tick off the positives of open technology, cost is only mentioned after Increased Agility/Flexibility, Faster Delivery, Increased Innovation, Reduced Risk, and Information Assurance & Security. More than mere white papers, however, the DoD has begun to lay important groundwork for supporting open source development efforts with Forge.Mil (SourceForge-ish collaboration tools), and a more grass-roots military/civillian group Mil-OSS.  From this outsider’s view, it appears there are substantial attempts to work the problem from both the top-level macro view–procurement, licensing, and support issues–and just as importantly, creating a mechanism for bottom-up innovation where the women and men in the field can quickly and easily share best practices, specific problems solved, and field-tested hacks.

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Perhaps the greater glory of the US military is not an ideological priority of yours.  Fair enough. But in your favorite sprawling,white-collar bureaucracy is software part of the problem or part of the solution?  More to the point, do internal attitudes towards software–the weary cynicism that nothing is to be done and let’s just be patient waiting for the Office 2007/Internet Explorer 8 upgrade–highlight a troubling passivity towards problem-solving in general? If the Department of Defense, where the gears grind exceedingly slow, see software not as a tedious IT procurement issue but as a strategic advantage to be exploited, then one can only hope that the boardroom (and its evergreen fondness for martial metaphor and analogy) will eventually be equally as perceptive.

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The contradiction of the 21st century battlefield is that despite the billions spent on sophisticated weapons systems, success is dependent on small-unit decision-making and tactical improvisation.  This crucial element of improvisation is greatly aided by tools that are open to field mods in response to ever-changing requirements.  Or, as memorably summed up by an Army attendee at the inaugural Gov 2.0 Summit, “only pack it if you can hack it.”


—Brian Timoney