Earlier this year, Americans began to see just how outdated their government’s technology actually is. The revelation that some veterans were literally dying while waiting to see doctors at Veterans Administration hospitals horrified the American public. At a series of congressional hearings this past June, the VA acting Inspector General, Richard Griffen, revealed that part of the scheduling problem was due to the fact that the software used by the VA to schedule appointments has not been updated since 1985. In 1985, Reagan was still in office, we had no idea what AIDS was, the Berlin Wall was still up, and the first artificial heart patient left the hospital. That is how old the VA’s scheduling software is.
Our nuclear weapons system uses even older software. In his latest book, Command and Control, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser reveals that the U.S. military’s main land-based missile system, Minuteman III, which was implemented in 1970, was supposed to be retired in the 1980s (when the VA’s scheduling system was put in place).
According to Schlosser, the Minuteman launch computers use 9-inch floppy discs. I can not tell you what those look like or how they function, because I have never seen one. And while we are not likely to engage in nuclear war anytime soon, these failings software can have serious consequences. In 2007, six thermonuclear missiles were accidentally loaded onto a B-52 bomber. No one knew they were there; they flew across the country and then sat on a runway at Barksdale Air Force Base for a day and half. Missing nuclear weapons and dying veterans are just two especially the multiple consequences of the government using outdated software. So why is no one doing anything?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is politics. Earlier this year former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said one of the reasons for the inefficiencies at the VA was “turf.” Gates said that when he tried to get the VA and the Department of Defense on the same software system, he “simply could not get the technical people to abandon their turf consciousness and their insistence on owning their own system.” He went on the explain that VA and the DoD refused to merge their veterans’ records because neither was willing to give up the software it used and switch to the other’s.
This type of “turf” war is not new. In 2012, there was some controversy regarding which software is used to help spot IEDs in Afghanistan. The Army traditionally uses a software system known as DCGS. However, starting in 2012, the Army began to see an increasing number of requests from soldiers for other software, including Palantir. Many of the requests were denied, raising questions as to why the Army refused to give commanders the software they requested. Again, this comes back to politics. Linked here is an illustration of the procurement process for government software, courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation. It is an absurdly confusing and inefficient process. The result is software that is expensive, inefficient, and out of date by the time it comes out, if it ever comes out. For the army to switch to off-the-shelf software as opposed to custom developed software done by defense contractors, would be to admit that the way the government has been doing things is wrong. And if there is one thing the government hates, it is admitting that it made a mistake.
If you’re looking for candidates who support the welfare of American soldiers and veterans this November, look at their positions on technology. If candidates think that VA reform requires more money and new people, they don’t understand the problem, and there will continue to be ‘scandal’ after ‘scandal.’ If politicians want to protect soldiers and themselves from VA fallout — and protect all of us from an accidental nuclear war — their best option is to update their software.
Elizabeth Margolin, a sophomore studying public policy, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.