Viral open letter begs Pentagon to ‘fix our computers’

A US Air Force operations director this week criticized the Pentagon for failing to overhaul its outdated IT infrastructure after his work machine apparently took an hour to send an email and completely froze when it tried using Microsoft Excel.

“I’m writing an open letter echoing some of the service members’ recent frustrations with Department of Defense computers. It’s titled: ‘Fix Our Computers,'” Michael Kanaan wrote in a widely circulated post on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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

Simple tasks such as logging into his work computer or sending an email can take up to an hour, he said. Trying to run simple, everyday applications like Microsoft Excel is nearly impossible. Kanaan said he often had 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 next generation? 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Kanaan, who has been in the US military for more than a decade, said his work device was so outdated it would cost just $108 in the real world.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 longstanding problem that government agencies have been unable to address. Nicolas Chaillan quit his job last year as the Air Force’s first-ever software manager out of frustration with Uncle Sam and his “infuriating” approach to IT.

Unfortunately, too many people in departments think about [IT] as a cost and not as a catalyst, so it is very difficult to obtain financing

“I would say most computer systems are around five to ten years old – more than they should be,” Chaillan said. The register Thursday. “Unfortunately too many people in the department are thinking about [computing infrastructure] as a cost and not as an enabler, so it’s very difficult to get funds to update things like laptops and devices.”

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

“We would rather fund another F-35 than invest in more efficient computer systems,” Chaillan said. “We could do without another F-35, but we can’t really do without basic computing in 2022.”

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

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

However, not everyone suffers from it. The highest-ranking members of the Air Force and the Department of Defense don’t usually face so many day-to-day problems. Meanwhile, Air Force Information Director Lauren Knausenberger said her department was trying to fix people’s computers.

“It’s just a matter of prioritizing scale and investment,” Knausenberger wrote in response to the open letter on LinkedIn. “Gmail is being removed for certain populations. [Microsoft] environment working pretty well with Teams at this point… [Internet Explorer] should officially be banned on the network. Some things are still in transition, but Edge is the new normal. Personally, I use Chrome and have no problems.”

Chaillan agreed that not everyone faces the same technological failures on a daily basis: “I don’t want to give the impression that everyone faces these challenges, because that’s not really true. I would say that if you look at the numbers, it’s probably less than 50% – maybe even less than 40% of people.”

According to Kanaan, hundreds of thousands of hours of service were lost last year due to poor IT.

Another hurdle is that the top brass have watched their people make do with terrible technology for so long that it’s just considered the norm now, Chaillan told us.

“The problem we have with a lot of leaders is that they’re so used to it being terrible – terrible laptops and all that terrible stuff,” he said. “For example, you cannot have a cell phone 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 are used to it being bad.

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