The U.S. And North Korea – Warpath Paved With Rational Decisions?


Stratfor U.S. and N. Korea War


“Neither wants war; each side strongly prefers an alternative path to resolve the core issues underlying the crisis.

Yet their differing strategic imperatives and desired end states leave little room for compromise.

War is rarely the first option for countries trying to preserve or enhance their strategic positions. The United States and North Korea alike would rather avoid a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which would be complicated and costly for all parties involved.

As North Korea draws closer to achieving long-range missile capabilities, something it sees as a security guarantee, the United States faces mounting pressure to act. But as Washington tries to coerce North Korea to end its quest for more sophisticated arms, Pyongyang feels compelled to accelerate its nuclear weapons and missile development. Each country is merely acting to preserve its interests. But their interests are driving them closer to a physical confrontation.

The Rational Assumption

Geopolitics teaches us to assume rationality on the part of actors on the international stage. The assumption doesn’t suppose that individual leaders are somehow beyond the influence of emotion, misinformation or miscalculation. Rather it acknowledges the deeper forces at work, from the interactions of place and people that shape national characteristics and strategic culture to the systems and structures that develop in countries over time. No leader operates free of these constraints and compulsions. Though they still have leeway to shape their policies and actions, leaders, as individuals and as a collective group, do so within limits defined in large part by the environments in which they emerged. The rationality we assume from leaders is not universal; it is the product of their place and time under the influence of factors such as history, geography and economics.

The key, then, is to understand what guides the rationality of a country’s leadership, on an individual level and in the government as a whole. After all, no one individual rules a country, since no single person could extend power over an entire population without the help of intermediaries. And each layer of leadership adds another set of constraints to the exercise of power. Disagreements arise in governments and in the populations they preside over. But the forces that influence the options available to leaders are far larger than the concerns of the individual. It is an analyst’s job to understand and explain these factors, and a policymaker’s job to take them into account when considering how to achieve a desired outcome.

Even so, it is sometimes simpler in international relations to assume one’s adversaries are crazy. They don’t follow the desired path or react in the anticipated way, so they must be acting irrationally. If one makes the wrong assumptions of an adversary (or even of an ally), however, the response to a given action may be far from what was intended.

Of course, understanding the other side doesn’t guarantee the desired outcome, either. Irreconcilable differences in interests and perceptions of risk can get in the way of compromise. The most viable solution often is to constantly adjust one’s actions to manage these contradictions, even if they prove insurmountable. At times, though, the differences can be so intractable as to drive nations into conflict if each side’s pursuit of contrary interests leads to fear and insecurity for the other. Moves by one nation to constrain the threatening behavior it perceives from another then perpetuate the cycle of action and reaction. In the case of North Korea and the United States, the contradiction in their interests is growing ever starker as Pyongyang accelerates its nuclear weapons program and nears its goal of developing a missile capable of striking the continental United States.

As Pyongyang draws closer to the deliverable long-range nuclear weapon it has long pursued, Washington will be forced to decide whether to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and live with that reality or to take the necessary steps to disarm it.

A Mutual Misunderstanding

Misunderstandings, misapplied assumptions and mismatched goals have characterized relations between the United States and North Korea for decades. Washington expected — or at least hoped — that North Korea would collapse on its own under the force of economic and social pressures. The evaluation misjudged the country as the Asian equivalent of an Eastern Bloc state waiting for the Soviet Union’s demise to break free from the shackles of a foreign-imposed power structure. North Korea hasn’t collapsed. In fact, in times of trouble, its neighbors (and even the United States) have helped stabilize the government in Pyongyang for fear that the consequences of the country’s failure would be more dangerous than the risks entailed in its survival. North Korea, meanwhile, considered itself a fixture on the United States’ target list, a remnant of the Cold War that Washington was trying to toss on the ash heap of history.

The two have had many opportunities for some form of reconciliation over the years. Time and again, though, progress has run afoul of perceived threats, diverging commitments, changing priorities, domestic politics and even extraregional events. As Pyongyang draws closer to the deliverable long-range nuclear weapon it has long pursued, Washington will be forced to decide whether to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and live with that reality or to take the necessary steps to disarm it. The cost of action is high, but so is the perceived threat of inaction.”

STRATFOR – On a Warpath Paved With Rational Decisions

Eric Prince on “Fixing” Afghanistan – His Private Army – Your Tax Dollars

Blackwater Govexec dot com



“The privatization of war is already underway. Prince sees how it can be harnessed for U.S. interests and is pushing his proposal, as are others in the industry. The big idea here is that they could extricate U.S. soldiers from this quagmire, and somehow solve it.

For Prince, a large mercenary force inspired by the British East India Company would be Blackwater 2.0, a phenomenal business opportunity for someone with White House connections. (His sister is Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.)

Here’s a crazy idea floating around Washington these days, outlandish even by today’s outlandish standards: The United States should hire a mercenary army to “fix” Afghanistan, a country where we’ve been at war since 2001, spending billions along the way.

Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.

It could get worse. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Prince laid out a plan whereby the fighting force would be led by an American viceroy who would report directly to Trump. Modeled after General Douglas MacArthur, who ruled Japan after World War II, the viceroy would consolidate all American power in a single person. His mission: Do whatever it takes to pacify Afghanistan. No more backseat driving of the war from pesky bureaucrats in Washington, or restrictive rules of engagement imposed on soldiers. An American viceroy with a privatized fighting force would make trains run on time in Afghanistan—if they had trains.

Who would this viceroy be? Probably Prince had himself in mind, and that should worry everyone. Under his watch, Blackwater military contractors opened fire in a city square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians in one of the worst episodes of the Iraq war. When asked by Congress how he addressed potential wrongdoing among his employees in 2007, he said: “If there is any sort of … problem, whether it’s bad attitude, a dirty weapon, riding someone’s bike that’s not his, we fire him. … If they don’t hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle.”

Prince has been developing these ideas for a while. In his Journal op-ed, he wrote that the British East India Company should be the model for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. This private company was the instrument of British colonization of India for centuries, led by a viceroy with monarchical powers and a private army to rule the natives. Prince’s solution for Afghanistan amounts to neo-colonialism.

There are other problems with Prince’s proposal. MacArthur was fired by President Harry Truman for abuse of power—hardly a venerable model for a viceroy. Also, the armies of the British East India Company did much harm in India, and bankrupted the company. British taxpayers had to bail it out in 1770, and then the government had to seize control in 1874.

For Prince, a large mercenary force inspired by the British East India Company would be Blackwater 2.0, a phenomenal business opportunity for someone with White House connections. (His sister is Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.) But he’s also got inroads of his own. In January, he held secret meetings in the Seychelles, allegedly to establish a back channel between Trump and Vladimir Putin (a spokesman for Prince denied to the Post that the meeting had anything to with Trump). Or perhaps he just wants to come home. After the Iraq fiasco, he went into self-exile, helping Abu Dhabi raise a secret army in the desert and working for China in Africa.

Despite the ridiculousness of all this, the idea appears to be gaining traction in Washington. Bannon recently went to the Pentagon to push for it, and others in the private military industry are lobbying in support. Their interests are more likely profit than concern for Afghans. The fact that the idea has champions in the West Wing sends a message to the whole galaxy of private military contractors: Business may be booming once again! If America entertains the possibility of outsourcing one of its most intractable foreign policy boondoggles, it may well push the market to spit out huge numbers of these fighters. It is supply and demand, generating tens of thousands of soldiers of fortune.
One might think these are different times—that the abuses of the British East India Company are irrelevant to the current age. That would be wrong.Like Prince, I was a private military contractor for years. I worked mostly in Africa, where I helped stop a genocide before it started, demobilized warlords, helped UN peacekeeping missions, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, and raised small armies for U.S. interest. Based on my experience, I would submit that not everything Prince suggests is crazy. We are seeing a new breed of conflict-entrepreneur roam the battlefield, selling war to anyone who can afford it. They are not just lone soldiers of fortune toting AK-47s, but small armies with armed aircraft and special-forces units. Despite the claims of those who have never seen an actual battle, these privately contracted fighters can be quite effective, and this is why the industry is flourishing.The truth is, countries are increasingly turning to private military solutions to solve their problems, all in the shadows. Two years ago, Nigeria secretly hiredmercenaries after a six-year struggle against Boko Haram, a jihadi terrorist group. They showed up with attack helicopters and special forces teams, and accomplished in weeks what the Nigerian military alone could not: Push Boko Haram out of much of the territory it held in Nigeria. Some quietly wonder if the same thing could be done against the Islamic State or al Shabaab.Nigeria is not unique. Russia, the Emirates, Uganda and even terrorist groups, hire private fighters to wage secret wars everywhere. Ships enlist them as “embarked security” to fight pirates. There are even private cyber warriors, called “hack back companies,” who hunt hackers that attack their clients. In some ways, the Trump administration is just making this furtive trend fully apparent, a final stroke and affirmation of what has been building for nearly two decades now.

However, as an ex-military contractor, I cannot think of a worse solution for Afghanistan. There are many concerns about the safety, accountability, and morality of going into business with these types of outfits. When I was in the industry, I had multiple opportunities to go “off contract” and form a Praetorian Guard. In ancient Rome, this infamous imperial bodyguard assassinated 14 emperors, appointed five, and even sold the office to the highest bidder on one occasion. Praetorianism is a real thing, and something Prince or a viceroy could not easily control.

Alternatively, what would happen if Russia, China, or Pakistan offered this private army a better deal? There would be a bidding war for the loyalty of the force, something I saw warlords do in Africa. Unlike soldiers, these fighters would be akin to products on an eBay of war.

Mercenaries also breed war and suffering. For-profit warriors proliferate armed conflict—as long as there is someone to pay, there will always be a war to start, expand or prolong. History shows us that they often maraud between contracts, preying on the innocent. In the Middle Ages, they would sometimes extort whole cities in racketeering schemes, as happened to Siena, Italy 37 times between 1342 and 1399. Others set up de facto kingdoms of their own, or just took one over, as the happened to Milan in the 1400s. Sometimes they were hired to commit atrocities, sparing their clients from this nasty work. In 1377, the Pope’s private army was ordered to annihilate the town of Cesena, massacring all its inhabitants.

But contractors are not intrinsically evil; in fact, they can be a force for good. They are a tool, like fire—they can burn down a building or power a steam engine. What good could they do? They can prevent mass atrocities, police warlords, hunt terrorist groups, augment peacekeeping missions, raise legitimate armies or enforce the rule of law—I know because I did these things. This is doable, but requires a small force under certain conditions and proper oversight. It is wholly different than the massive mercenary army Prince seems to envision to rule Afghanistan.

But America is not ready for such a radical idea, and may never be.”

About the Author:

Sean McFate CSPAN dot org

Image:  Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the co-author of Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel.





How Privacy Became a Commodity for the Rich and Powerful


privacy as a commodity


By Amanda Hess

“Now that our privacy is worth something, every side of it is being monetized.

We can either trade it for cheap services or shell out cash to protect it. It is increasingly seen not as a right but as a luxury good.

When Congress recently voted to allow internet service providers to sell user data without users’ explicit consent, talk emerged of premium products that people could pay for to protect their browsing habits from sale. And if they couldn’t afford it? As one congressman told a concerned constituent, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.” Practically, though, everybody’s got to. Tech companies have laid claim to the public square: All of a sudden, we use Facebook to support candidates, organize protests and pose questions in debates. We’re essentially paying a data tax for participating in democracy.

The smartphone is an intimate device; we stare rapt into its bright light and stroke its smooth glass to coax out information and connect with others. It seems designed to help us achieve Westin’s functions of privacy, to enable emotional release and moments of passive reflection. We cradle it in bed, at dinner, on the toilet. Its pop-up privacy policies are annoying speed bumps in the otherwise instantaneous conjuring of desires. It feels like a private experience, when really it is everything but. How often have you shielded the contents of your screen from a stranger on the subway, or the partner next to you in bed, only to offer up your secrets to the data firm tracking everything you do?

The surveillance economy works on such information asymmetry: Data-mining companies know everything about us, but we know very little about what they know. And just as “privacy” has grown into an anxious buzzword, the powerful have co-opted it in order to maintain control over others and evade accountability. As we bargain away the amount of privacy that an ordinary person expects, we’ve also watched businesses and government figures grow ever more indignant about their own need to be left alone. Companies mandate nondisclosure agreements and demand out-of-court arbitration to better conceal their business practices. In 2013, Facebook revoked users’ ability to remain unsearchable on the site; meanwhile, its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was buying up four houses surrounding his Palo Alto home to preserve his own privacy. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has defended President Trump’s secretive meetings at his personal golf clubs, saying he is “entitled to a bit of privacy,” and the administration has cut off public access to White House visitor logs, citingsecurity risks and “privacy concerns.” When The New York Times reported that the president takes counsel from the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Hannity indignantly tweeted that his conversations were “PRIVATE.”

We’ve arrived at a place where public institutions and figures can be precious about their privacy in ways we’re continually deciding individual people can’t. Stepping into the White House is now considered more private than that weird rash you Googled. It’s a cynical inversion of the old association between private life and the lower class: These days, only the powerful can demand privacy.”


About the Author:


Amanda Hess is a David Carr Fellow at the New York Times. She writes about internet culture for the Arts section and contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine.









Pentagon Studies Weapons That Can Read Users’ Mind

still from DARPA video

DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program is devising new kinds of artificial limbs — and new ways to control them.


“The troops of tomorrow may be able to pull the trigger using only their minds.

As artificially intelligent droneshackingjamming, and missiles accelerate the pace of combat, some of the military’s leading scientists are studying how mere humans can keep up with the incredible speed of cyber warfare, missiles and other threats.

One option: Bypass crude physical controls — triggers, throttles, keyboards — and plug the computer directly into the human brain. In one DARPA experiment, a quadriplegic first controlled an artificial limb and then flew a flight simulator. Future systems might monitor the users’ nervous system and compensate for stress, fatigue, or injury. Is this the path to what the Pentagon calls human-machine teaming?

This is an unnerving scenario for those humans, like Stephen Hawking, who mistrust artificial intelligence. If your nightmare scenario is robots getting out of control, “let’s teach them to read our minds!” is probably not your preferred solution. It sounds more like the beginning of a movie where cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger goes back in time to kill someone.

But the Pentagon officials who talked up this research yesterday at Defense One’s annual tech conference emphasized the objective was to improve human control over artificial intelligence. Teaching AI to monitor its user’s level of stress, exhaustion, distraction, and so on helps the machine adapt itself to better serve the human — instead of the other way around. Teaching AI to instantly detect its user’s intention to give a command, instead of requiring a relatively laborious push of a button, helps the human keep control — instead of having to let the AI off the leash because no human can keep up with it.

Official Defense Department policy, as then-Secretary Ash Carter put it, is that the US will “never” allow an artificial intelligence to decide for itself whether or not to kill a human being. However, no less a figure than the Carter’s undersecretary of acquisition and technology, Frank Kendall, fretted publicly that making our robots wait for human permission would slow them down so much that enemy AI without such constraints would beat us. Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Paul Selva, calls this the “Terminator Conundrum.” Neuroscience suggests a way out of this dilemma: Instead of slowing the AIs down, make the humans’ orders come faster.

Accelerate Humanity

“We will continue to have humans on the loop, we will have human input in decisions, but the way we go about that is going to have to shift, just to cope with the speed and the capabilities that autonomous systems bring,” said Dr. James Christensen, portfolio manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory‘s 711th Human Performance Wing. “The decision cycle with these systems is going to be so fast that they have to be sensitive to and responsive to the state of the individual (operator’s) intent, as much as overt actions and control inputs that human’s providing.”

In other words, instead of the weapon system responding to the human operator physically touching a control, have it respond to the human’s brain cells forming the intention to use a control. “When you start to have a direct neural interface of this type, you don’t necessarily need to command and control the aircraft using the stick,” said Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA‘s Biological Technologies Office. “You could potentially re-map your neural signatures onto the different control surfaces” — the tail, the flaps — “or maybe any other part of the aircraft” — say landing gear or weapons. “That part hasn’t really been explored in a huge amount of depth yet.”

Reading minds, even in this limited fashion, will require deep understanding and close monitoring of the brain, where thoughts take measurable form as electrical impulses running from neuron to neuron. “Can we develop precise neurotechnologies that can go to those circuits in the brain or the peripheral nervous system in real time?” Sanchez asked aloud. “Do we have computational systems that allow us to understand what the changes in those signals (mean)? And can we give meaningful feedback, either to the person or to the machine to help them to do their job better?”

DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program hooked up the brain of a quadriplegic — someone who could move neither arms nor legs — to a prosthetic arm, allowing the patient to control it directly with their thoughts. Then, “they said, ‘I’d like to try to fly an airplane,’” Sanchez recounted. “So we created a virtual flight simulator for this person, allowed this neural interface to interface with the virtual aircraft, and that person flew.”

“That was a real wake-up call for everybody involved,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t initially think you could do that.”

Adapting To The Human

Applying direct neural control to real aircraft — or tanks, or ships, or network cybersecurity systems — will require a fundamental change in design philosophy. Today, said Christensen, we give the pilots tremendous information on the aircraft, then expect them to adapt to it. In the future, we could give the aircraft tremendous information on its pilots, then have it use artificial intelligence to adapt itself to them. The AI could customize the displays, the controls, even the mix of tasks it took on versus those it left up to the humans — all exquisitely tailored not just to the preferences of the individual operator but to his or her current mental and physical state.

When we build planes today, “they’re incredible sensor platforms that collect data on the world around them and on the aircraft systems themselves, (but) at this point, very little data is being collected on the pilot,” Christensen said. “The opportunity there with the technology we’re trying to build now is to provide a continuous monitoring and assessment capability so that the aircraft knows the state of that individual. Are they awake, alert, conscious, fully capable of performing their role as part of this man-machine system? Are there things that the aircraft then can do? Can it unload gees (i.e. reduce g-forces)? Can it reduce the strain on the pilot?”

“This kind of ability to sense and understand to the state and the capabilities of the human is absolutely critical to the successful employment of highly automated systems,” Christensen said. “The way all of our systems are architected right now, they’re fixed, they’re predictable, they’re deterministic” — that is, any given input always produces the exact same output.

Predictability has its advantages: “We can train to that, they behave in very consistent ways, it’s easier to test and evaluate,” Christensen said. “What we lose in that, though is the real power of highly automated systems, autonomous systems, as learning systems, of being able to adapt themselves. ”

“That adaptation, though, it creates unpredictability,” he continued. “So the human has to adapt alongside the system, and in order to do that, there has to be some mutual awareness, right, so the human has to understand what is the system doing, what is it trying to do, why is that happening; and vice versa, the system has to has some understanding of the human’s intent and also their state and capabilities.”

This kind of synergy between human and artificial intelligence is what some theorists refer to as the “centaur,” after the mythical creature that combined human and horse — with the human part firmly in control, but benefiting from the beast’s strength and speed. The centaur concept, in turn, lies at the heart of the Pentagon’s ideas of human-machine teaming and what’s known as the Third Offset, which seeks to counter (offset) adversaries’ advancing technology with revolutionary uses of AI.

The neuroscience here is in its infancy. But it holds the promise of a happy medium between hamstringing our robots with too-close control or letting them run rampant.”

Air Force Cancels Northrop Air Operations Network Upgrade

Northrup Grumman Cancellation air-ops-center-1800

Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other nations. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)


“The Air Force on Thursday canceled an already overdue project with Northrop Grumman to develop a critical network upgrade it needs to conduct air operations, and counter terrorism and humanitarian missions.

It was revealed in November that costs for the program surged from an original $374 million slated for the project to $745 million, Bloomberg News reported at the time.

The upgraded system in total was estimated to eventually climb to $3 billion, according to a report submitted to Congress in that month, Bloomberg said.

The Air Force on Thursday canceled an already overdue project with Northrop Grumman to develop a critical network upgrade it needs to conduct air operations, and counterterrorism and humanitarian missions.

The service “terminated the current Air Operations Center 10.2 contract with Northrop Grumman in order to more quickly develop and field AOC capabilities via an Agile DevOps process known as AOC Pathfinder,” said Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski.

“The Air Force is working through funding options with Congress for the new approach,” she said in an email statement.

The technology is designed to enhance battlefield command and control in part by converting “raw data into actionable information that is used to direct battlefield activities,” according to a press release from Northrop.

“AOCs are the nexus of combatant command theater-level air war planning and execution, and must remain effective in order to deliver air superiority to the joint force while ensuring cybersecurity, Grabowski said. “The airmen operating AOCs provide airpower on demand to troops on the ground, responding to battlefield needs and humanitarian crises the world over.”

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, head of Air Force Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said Friday the service still plans to maintain elements of the program for future endeavors.

“There are elements of it that we will be able to use as we go forward,” she told audiences during an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C. “I don’t have all the details as to what all the money was spent on, but not all of it is going to be completely thrown away.”

Pawlikowski’s speech focused on the increased need for agility in software systems.

She continued, “I don’t even want to call it a program — that capability that we’re trying to get into, the AOC that 10.2 represented is one of the key drivers to tackling these issues.”

When asked how the cancellation would roll back the service’s efforts, Pawlikowski said, “Not at all. Because remember, the requirements are still there. So I have the opportunity to get after those requirements using an agile software development construct as opposed to a traditional, ‘OK, I have this [program] here that’s going to cost a bazillion dollars that’s going to take this amount of time,’ ” she said. “We’re going to start to get after those requirements.”

The Air Force said that Pathfinder’s approach implements industry “best practices” by allowing airmen to communicate software requirements directly to the developers throughout the life of the system, among other attributes.

“AOC modernization through a truly open systems approach will significantly reduce life cycle costs and enable the Air Force’s future operational concepts,” Mike Twyman, vice president and general manager of the Defense Systems division for Northrop Grumman Information Systems, said in 2013.

The AOC team consists of personnel from the AOC System Program Office, Air Force and Defense Digital Service, and Defense Unit Experimental, or DIUx, who work together to understand and apply commercial industry insight and best practices to the Defense Department acquisition process.

“The team will replace manual stakeholder processes with software automation to satisfy requirements, to the greatest extent possible,” Grabowski said.

How the Air Force plans to preserve the aspects of the program through this process is still being determined.”




Can the VA Achieve Innovation By Sole-Sourcing a $9 Billion Contract Without Competition?




“The VA has already wasted $1.5 billion on the now abandoned Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA. Sole source and innovation in the same sentence? It is certainly surprising.

In his June 5 press release, Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin announced his decision that the VA would adopt the Defense Department Military Health System GENESIS as its next-generation electronic health record system.”

” When President Trump announced the creation of the Office of American Innovation March 17, we were expecting…well, innovation. Interestingly, one of the first major recommendations coming out of the this newly formed office was to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue a sole source contract, likely worth billions of dollars, for the VA’s electronic health records system.

To accomplish this innovation, Shulkin signed a Determination and Findings (D&F) that “there is a public interest exception to the requirement for full and open competition… the VA may issue a solicitation directly to Cerner Corporation for the acquisition of the EHR system currently being deployed by DoD…”

A so-called public interest D&F is rarely issued, so it raises some important questions.

Will the Sole Source Approach Save Time?

Sole source procurements do save time for the procuring office. However, saving time also depends whether other interested parties decide to protest the action. If history is any guide, they may, as the contract is worth billions of dollars (the DoD contract is valued at up to $9 billion). There have been only two such protests, and the Government Accounting Office (GAO) dismissed one in 2010 and upheld another in 2013. With a contract so large, we can place our bets on a protest.

Will the Sole Source Approach Save Money?

One of the major arguments against a sole source action is that it will not save money, as the winning vendor will perceive a seller’s market and charge the buyer more. On the other hand, the VA has already wasted $1.5 billion on the now abandoned Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA. Whether the contract saves money will also depend on how the government distributes risk. The VA may decide to issue a performance-based contract to include incentives and disincentives, and/or ensure the new contract includes an award fee for specified progress. They could decide on a modular approach, where they issue a contract that requires that the vendor prove themselves with the first deliverable before proceeding. The VA has a lot of options to structure the contract in a way that limits their risk.

Will the Sole Source Approach Encourage Innovation?

The Office of American Innovation recommended a sole source contract, so some form of innovation should be involved. The VA is seeking IT modernization as well as interoperability with DoD systems and partners. At the same time, they do not want to sacrifice the clinical innovations they have achieved in existing systems, and they want to make further cybersecurity enhancements. Still, Shulkin admits this venture will require “cooperation and involvement of many companies and thought leaders” to achieve desired innovations. Again, designing the contract to include modular milestones to assess performance towards desired goals will be critical to achieving innovation, sole source or not.

What’s Next?

Typically, when the government is spending such a large amount of money, sole source is not the preferred approach. However, in this case, the VA may be making a last-ditch effort to make progress on its EHR. How they structure the awarded contract will play a large role in determining whether they end up saving time and money as well as achieving innovation.”

Lisa Pafe

About the Author

Lisa Pafe is a capture strategy and proposal development consultant and is vice president of Lohfeld Consulting. She can be reached at 



DoD Sends Industry Its Cyber Wish List


DOD Cyber Wish List


“The Pentagon’s Department of Defense, Rapid Reaction Technology Office  looks to develop prototypes and host technology demonstrations to counter emerging and anticipated threats.

“There is a potential for companies to be selected for pilot projects or experimentation if their technology appears to match the DoD’s cyber needs.”

[It] has issued a special notice to industry this week announcing its intention to conduct a solutions meeting to support the Cyber Science and Technology Community of Interest.

The meeting, which will occur in late October, will provide “selected innovative companies with an opportunity to make short technical presentations to government representatives about their technologies and products,” the notice states.

The notice lists a variety of innovative technology needs in cyber under a series of broad subject areas.

These include autonomous cyber defense; cyber situational awareness, planning and decision support; cybersecurity for infrastructure, endpoints and edge devices; control systems, internet of things security; and hardware and software assurance.

Last summer, the same organization issued a similar notice seeking a variety of technologies such as standoff detection/sensors, device neutralization, counter vehicle attached IEDs (VAIEDs), electronic countermeasures for advanced wireless signals and techniques, robotics, data analytics/predictive algorithms, counter tunnel and mapping technologies and biometric signature collection and exploitation.

Here’s an example of a few technologies this week’s notice lists under each category:

  • Autonomous cyber defense: Artificial intelligence/machine learning, automatic cyber resilience and configuration tools for cyberspace operations.
  • Cyber situational awareness, planning and decision support: Risk assessment, planning and course of action support, visibility of missions, systems and adversaries and automated mission mapping to infrastructure.
  • Cybersecurity for infrastructure, endpoints and edge devices: Rapidly deployable tools for network mapping/awareness and discovery, response and eradication of attacks as well as device and software anonymization.
  • Control systems, internet of things security: Manage, monitor, detect and alert abnormal behaviors and automated identification of devices and protocols.
  • Hardware and software assurance: Scalable, intelligent code/software analysis and repair.”




What the Government Really Wants From Federal Government Contractors

Government Want from Contractors - Abovethelaw dot com

Image: “”

“SMALLGOVCON” Source: “GovconVoices” – “What the Government Wants, What It Really Really Wants” By Gloria Larkin CEO and Founder TargetGov

“According to, the government spent $472,158,562,285 last year through contracting for services and products with large and small companies nationwide.  This was a $34 billion increase over the previous year, and 2017 is anticipating another increase, especially in Department of Defense spending. None of the noted totals include entitlements, grants or non-contract obligations.

The real questions most contractors ask are what does the government really want, and how does it decide who wins what contract?

As an initial requirement, most government agencies must follow the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and agency FAR supplements, such as the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS). These extensive legal rules are available online for anyone who is interested in learning about them as the relevant portions become part of every federal contract as stated in the contract paperwork.  Some agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Postal Service have their own rules and regulations outside of FAR and typical FAR supplements. It is wise to educate oneself regarding targeted agencies’ contracting rules.

Many contractors think that lowest price is always the deciding factor. While the federal government is mandated to spend our tax dollars wisely, lowest price does not always win. Most often, the decision-makers are looking for the best deal. Often, the best deal includes a very competitive price, balanced with several other factors such as proof of abilities, clear capacity to perform and strong references.

The challenge for all contractors is how to avoid the “chasing the bid” mentality and instead determine how to identify and reach decision-makers early enough in the purchase process to effectively and legally influence and educate those decision-makers in the best way to write the requirements.

The answer to this conundrum is taken directly from a government source, the United States Air Force, in its industry outreach process. Other government entities have been proven to follow similar if not exactly alike guidelines. The Air Force states that these five processes must be incorporated into any company’s business development tactics: Market Research, Business and Financial Plan, Network, Communication & Relationships, Past Performance and Continuous Marketing.

Market research seems to be obvious but it is surprising how many businesses fail to complete this first requirement. Instead they wait until they meet with the target and at that point ask them for opportunity recommendations. This is a huge mistake and will result in the decision-maker closing the door on future opportunities. One would be better served checking for sources sought notices, solicitations and records of previously-awarded contracts through the Federal Procurement Data System as well as the target agency’s business forecast and budget.

The business and financial plan is a mystery to most businesses regarding federal contracting. In this case, the decision-maker is NOT asking the contractor for its entire business plan, but rather what the plan is to finance the targeted opportunity should it be awarded. This little-known step will go a long way in mitigating perceived risk for businesses of all sizes, especially for any business that may be pursuing opportunities which are larger than ever won in the past. Elements to include in the opportunity financial plan include projections of anticipated contract-oriented costs (payroll, overhead, products, legal, accounting, subcontracting, etc.), the timeline of those costs, anticipated invoicing and payment dates, and a letter from the bank of the or other financial institution stating that a line of credit is available to finance at least the first two billing cycles, until payment is received.

When the Air Force states that it wants a contractor to network, communicate and build relationships, it means that no matter what it takes, one should network by attending all possible in-person events, communicate regarding sources sought notices, participate in industry days for specific opportunities and make recommendations to improve services and products used by the agency. By being consistent in these efforts the contractor will benefit by building a strong relationship with all decision-makers. This is difficult to do and requires a commitment of time, effort and money. One must determine the short list of targets with whom to make this financial and time commitment as it is impossible to perform this level of effort for every possible federal target.

The fourth element, Past Performance, is a legal term as defined in FAR Part 42.15 Contractor Performance Information and elsewhere in the FAR. Essentially, the FAR states that “past performance information (including the ratings and supporting narratives) is relevant information, for future source selection purposes, regarding a contractor’s actions under previously awarded contracts or orders. It includes, for example, the contractor’s record of:

(1) Conforming to requirements and to standards of good workmanship;

(2) Forecasting and controlling costs;

(3) Adherence to schedules, including the administrative aspects of performance;

(4) Reasonable and cooperative behavior and commitment to customer satisfaction;

(5) Reporting into databases (see subpart 4.14, and reporting requirements in the solicitation provisions and clauses referenced in 9.104-7);

(6) Integrity and business ethics; and

(7) Business-like concern for the interest of the customer.

Most losing bids do not address these seven elements of past performance and instead serve only as a record of describing projects similar to the targeted opportunity. Winning contractors take into account and describe at least all seven elements and further offer proof of differentiators and the value add for the project.

The final recommendation of continuous marketing is lost on most contractors. This marketing, when successful, targets all decision-makers and incorporates both a corporate messaging process performed throughout the year as well as ongoing an individual effort of the business development or capture person assigned to that target. Rarely do companies perform both processes simultaneously. And it is even more rare that this is done well, with appropriate messages crafted for each layer of decision-maker. This translates to different messaging for the program layer, other messaging for the contracting layer and yet different messaging for the small business representatives.

To see success, listen to the customer and give them what they want, what they really really want and even outright ask for.”

About the Author:

Gloria Larkin, President of TargetGov, is a nationally-recognized government contracting marketing and business development expert. She has been interviewed on MSNBC, and quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, USA Today, INC Magazine, Entrepreneur Start-ups Magazine, and Government Executive magazine.

Gloria Larkin serves as the Educational Foundation Chairman of the Board of Directors and is the past National Procurement Committee Co-Chair for Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), a non-partisan organization representing over 6,200,000 women nationwide.

She is the author of the book, “The Basic Guide to Government Contracting” and “The Veterans Business Guide: How to Build a Successful Government Contracting Business” now in its fourth printing. She has spoken at international, national, regional and local conferences including recently University of Oxford Saïd Business School Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy 2013, the Annual National Veteran’s Conference, and the OSDBU Procurement Conference regarding practical, bottom-line focused business development best practices.

She has received numerous accolades including: The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Women in Business Champion for Maryland 2010, Enterprising Women magazine’s 2010 Enterprising Women of the Year honoree, one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women in 2010, 2007 and 2004, and Maryland’s Top 100 Minority Business Enterprises in 2008 and 2006.

TargetGov:            Phone: 1-866-579-1346            Email:

GovCon Voices is a regular feature dedicated to providing SmallGovCon readers with candid news, insight and commentary from government contracting thought leaders.  The opinions expressed in GovCon Voices are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Koprince Law LLC or its attorneys.





Your Questions Answered About the New Veterans Online Shopping Benefit

Vets Shopping - snagfilms-a dot akamaihd dot net

Image: snagfilms-a.


“More than 95,000 people visited the military exchanges’ website in its first month, seeking to register for the new veterans online shopping benefit that starts Nov. 11, officials said.

All honorably discharged veterans will have access to the online exchanges as of that date. VetVerify is the first step in the eligibility process.

Some veterans will be chosen as “beta testers” and will have access to the online stores before Nov. 11; the earlier veterans complete the verification process, the better their chances of becoming beta testers, according to officials with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which administers the verification for all the military exchange services.

Veterans who register through will receive notification of their acceptance as eligible online shoppers or, if their records are incomplete, will receive guidance on the steps they can take to update those records.

Officials were not able to provide information about how many of the 95,000 verification attempts have been successful. About 13 percent of the site’s visitors have been chosen as beta testers, AAFES spokesman Chris Ward said, and others who registered for verification already were eligible to shop.
Officials started the verification process early in preparation for at least 13 million people who will be newly eligible to shop online at the exchange. Until now, online military exchange shopping was available only to active-duty, reserve and National Guard members; retirees; 100 percent disabled veterans; the dependent family members of those individuals; and certain others.

Online pricing can be seen only by those who are authorized to shop at the exchange websites:;;
Military Times and the exchanges continue to get questions about the VetVerify website and the new shopping benefit. Here are a few frequently asked questions, and some answers, supplied by AAFES.

Q. Is this site a phishingscam?

A. No. is a shared service for all the military exchanges with the sole purpose of supporting the newly approved veterans online shopping benefit. uses data from Defense Manpower Data Center, which holds the most comprehensive dataset on veterans, to verify eligibility.

Q. Do I qualify if I served for four years, or if I was in the reserves, or if I’m on disability?

A. All honorably discharged veterans and those with a general (under honorable) discharge can shop their military exchanges, through the veterans online shopping benefit, beginning on Veterans Day.

Q. Can my spouse (or other family member) shop? 

A. No. The new benefit is specific to veterans with honorable and general (under honorable conditions) discharges.

Q. Does the veterans online shopping benefit extend to shopping at the commissary? 

A. No.

Q. What if my service can’t be verified? 

A. There may be further information needed, so you will need to submit a digital copy of your discharge paperwork to be reviewed for eligibility. After you submit your verification form through, you will be prompted to upload the necessary paperwork.

Q. Who should I call if I have problems with the verification process? 

A. The customer call center, toll-free, at 844-868-8672.

Q. Why does VetVerify ask for my entire Social Security number? 

A. VetVerify is required to obtain the last four digits of your Social Security number, date of birth and last name in order to validate and authenticate shoppers. If a match is not found with the minimum information, then the Social Security number is requested for a more detailed search. Social Security number is the unique identifier by Defense Manpower Data Center data. When customers visit the website of their favorite online exchanges for the first time, however, they will create a new username to be used as the unique identifier with the exchange. VetVerify has taken appropriate measures to safeguard your personal information. “

The Business of National Cybersecurity


Business of Cyber Security



“With all the attention this subject is now receiving, one would think the business of national cyber security (commercial, government and defense) would be very robust.

Small and medium-sized businesses are not singing a happy, carefree tune. Delays in contracts, budget cuts and delayed payments seem to be the most common complaints.

It is hard to open a browser, look at a newspaper, or watch or listen to a news show without the topic of cybersecurity coming up. In mid-June, Microsoft received a lot of attention from headlines about the company’s warning of an elevated risk of cyberattacks. Another attention-grabbing headline came from Chris Childers, the CEO of the National Defense Group located in Germantown, Maryland, who shined light on the fact that many satellites in use today are dated and use old technology that was made before cyberthreats were a real issue and prior to when cyber defenses were readily available.

With all of the headlines about cyberattacks, viruses, ransomware attacks (WannaCry) and so on, you would think cybersecurity business is booming. Odds are it is not as robust as many people think. Let’s not forget when the Department of Homeland Security said 20-plus states faced major hacking attempts during the 2016 presidential election.

Today, basic cybersecurity understanding and skills need to reach into every profession and every level of the workforce. Updating the skills of the workforce must be continuous, and this takes time and money.

Another interesting point was brought up during a recent cyber strategy thinking session: Could our adversaries be leveraging inexpensive cyberattacks and threats as economic warfare, knowing full well that we will move to identify, analyze and address the emerging threats — something that would cost us money? After all, what choice do we have?”