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How can we recruit for the future if it takes an hour to send an email, asks Air Force AI bigwig in plea for better IT

Billions spent on weapons and boondoggles while service members battle away on cheapo PCs

A US Air Force director of ops this week blasted the Pentagon for failing to overhaul its outdated computer IT infrastructure after his work machine apparently took an hour to send an email and completely froze when he tried to use Microsoft Excel.

"I am writing an open letter echoing some recent service member frustrations regarding computers in the Department of Defense. It's titled: 'Fix Our Computers', Michael Kanaan wrote in a post circulated widely on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Kanaan, who is a director of operations at the USAF-MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator in Boston, lamented how he and his colleagues are facing an uphill battle trying to do their jobs due to old, slow computers and laptops packed with bloatware.

Simple tasks such as logging into his work PC or sending an email can take up to an hour, he said. Trying to run simple, everyday applications such as Microsoft Excel is near impossible. Kanaan said he often has to restart his computer up to ten times a day. 

"We've been doing more with less for too long. Fix our computers. Want to recruit the generation of the future? Fix our computers," he wrote. "What happened to the cloud? Fix our computers. Why am I using Internet Explorer? Fix our computers."

Kanaan, who has been in the US military for over a decade, claimed his work device is so outdated it would cost just $108 in the real world. "Would you ever buy a $100 computer?" he asked.

The Pentagon's creaky IT infrastructure is well-known, and a long-standing issue that government bods haven't been able to solve. Nicolas Chaillan quit his job last year as the Air Force's first-ever chief software officer out of frustration with Uncle Sam and its "infuriating" approach to IT.

Unfortunately too many people at the departments think of [IT] as a cost and not an enabler so it's very difficult to get funding

"Most of the IT systems, I would say, are about five to ten years old – older than they should be," Chaillan told The Register on Thursday. "Unfortunately too many people in the department think of [computing infrastructure] as a cost and not an enabler, so it's very difficult to get funding to update things like laptops and devices."

Although upgrading people's computers and revamping tech support is expensive when you're talking about hundreds of thousands of employees – and bear in mind the US military has more than 1.4 million active-duty service members – it's not something Uncle Sam can't afford. Chaillan and Kanaan argued it would cost much less than what's spent on planes, tanks, missiles, and ships.

"We would rather fund another F-35 than invest in more effective IT systems," Chaillan said. "We could do without another F-35, but we can't really succeed without basic IT in 2022."

The issue, ultimately, boils down to Congress, he told us, and that funding has to be approved by lawmakers years in advance.

"The most broken thing in the government right now is how we get money," Chaillan said. "They are talking today in 2022 about the funding we're going to get between 2024 and 2028. You can blame the people in the government but the fact is, when we're all stuck in a funding cycle that is two to five to seven years, you can't pull any miracles."

Not everyone suffers, however. The higher-ranked members of the Air Force and Dept of Defense don't typically face so many day-to-day issues. Meanwhile, the Air Force's Chief Information Officer Lauren Knausenberger said her department is trying to fix people's computers.

"It's just a matter of prioritizing scaling and investment," Knausenberger wrote in response to the open letter on LinkedIn. "Gmail is waivered for certain populations. [Microsoft] environment working pretty well with Teams at this point … [Internet Explorer] was officially to be disallowed on the network. There were a few things that are still transitioning but Edge is the new standard. I personally use Chrome and don't have issues."

Chaillan agreed that not everyone was facing the same day-to-day technology breakdowns: "I don't want to make it sound like everybody's facing those challenges because it's not really true. I would say if you look at the numbers, it's probably under 50 per cent – maybe even under 40 per cent of people."

Hundreds of thousands of service member hours were last year lost through bad IT, though, according to Kanaan.

Another hurdle is that the top brass has seen their people get by with awful tech for so long that it's just considered the norm now, Chaillan told us.

"The issue we have with a lot of the leadership is that they're so used to it being terrible – terrible laptops and terrible everything," he said. "For example, you cannot have a cellphone in the [Pentagon]. So, you're stuck in the 1950s. And it's kind of a vicious cycle. They don't know what they don't know. They don't even know how bad it is because they're used to it being bad.

"If you sent them to SpaceX for two weeks, I think a lot of people's heads would explode." ®

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