The victors in battles are those who create, modify and deploy ideas faster and more nimbly than opponents. Regrettably, limiting the U.S. military's access to ideas risks failure.
For years, the U.S. military has been losing an asymmetric battle that involves not improvised explosive devices, bullets or al-Qaida, but instead swarms of defense industry contractors seizing control of taxpayer-funded ideas because government policy and regulations were engineered to buy iron and steel, not to deploy a software-based military.
Much like the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rapid and continual evolution of technology demands that the military accelerate just as rapidly, and the only way is to manage the ideas it has funded.
A common theme since 9/11 is that the U.S. government lacks imagination. We have not misplaced our imagination; we are simply unable to deploy new ideas as effectively or as quickly as we could. This loss of agility stands in stark contrast to private industry, foreign governments and nonstate actors, who are adopting and deploying software technologies once exclusively in the military domain.
For instance, China deploys advanced electronic warfare technologies, Iran builds unmanned aircraft, al-Qaida evolves explosive devices, and private companies like FedEx and eTrade create complex, redundant and failsafe command-and-control systems.
Software is the fabric that enables planning, weapons and logistics systems to function. It might be the only infinitely renewable military resource. New software builds on the raw material of previous software, evolving capabilities. Software is pervasive, from ground sensors to satellites; it is the final expression of a military idea transformed into human readable source code and deployed to a battlefield.
The Department of Defense spends tens of billions of dollars annually creating software that is rarely reused and difficult to adapt to new threats. Instead, much of this software is allowed to become the property of defense companies, resulting in DoD repeatedly funding the same solutions or, worse, repaying to use previously created software.
The lack of a coherent set of policies and regulations for the DoD's intellectual property has eroded the U.S. military competitive advantage, leading to compromised missions and lost lives. Improvised explosive device countermeasure systems can't be upgraded rapidly without replacing entire systems; personnel position systems can't update in real time; billions are wasted on software radios that don't interoperate.
The byzantine rules governing the military's intellectual property portfolio use an antiquated rights structure where the contractor always retains copyright, and therefore effective monopoly, control over taxpayer-funded software ideas. By contrast, commercial industry ruthlessly exercises control over its own software ideas.
The U.S. government has legislated a belief that the defense industry will do right by the military. However, the defense industry will, understandably, do what is best for its shareholders: maximize profit.
Monopolies via copyright ultimately increase costs and decrease adaptability and agility in military software. Examples include the General Atomics Predator and the recently canceled Future Combat Systems, where only one company can control these platforms and manipulate the software. Imagine if only the manufacturer of a rifle were allowed to clean, fix, modify or upgrade that rifle. This is where the military finds itself: one contractor with a monopoly on the knowledge of a military software system.
A first step would be to require all taxpayer-funded software ideas to be licensed with an open source software copyright. An open source license would define the rights, roles and responsibilities for the military and defense industry and simplify how military software ideas can be shared. To keep the U.S. military ahead of its adversaries, the DoD and defense industry must end this dysfunctional partnership of nonsharing.
Defining a modern software intellectual property regime would broaden the defense industrial base by enabling industry access to defense knowledge, thereby increasing competition and eventually lowering costs. Over time, DoD would evolve common software architectures and industrywide baselines to increase the adaptability, agility and - most important - capacity to meet new dynamic threats.
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the Eisenhower Library, "The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time."
The Department of Defense must develop a rights regime that explicitly deals with taxpayer-funded software ideas to increase returns on software investments.
The software idea chain is a future weapon; we can either plan for it now or be on the receiving end of it later.
John Scott is a term-member at the Council on Foreign Relations. He co-wrote the U.S. Defense Department's "Open Technology Development Roadmap," which promotes adoption of open-source methodologies within the military.