Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook: DoD releases missing piece of 2015 budget; defense acquisition ‘good enough’

“Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook” is a biweekly feature focused on news about the Defense Department and defense community, as gathered by Federal News Radio DoD Reporter Jared Serbu.

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DoD releases overseas contingency budget request

A fter a several-month delay, the Obama administration released on June 26 the big missing piece of its 2015 DoD budget request, the rest of which it sent to Capitol Hill in early March.

The final overseas contingency operations (OCO) request is smaller than the “placeholder” figure DoD used when it submitted the original budget — $59 billion instead of $79 billion — but just as significantly, the White House made clear that DoD intends to continue requesting OCO money even after most U.S. troops have left Afghanistan at the end of calendar year 2014.

“Although the FY 2015 OCO request reflects a transition as the United States concludes combat operations in Afghanistan partway through the fiscal year, most costs will not decline precipitously,” Brian Deese, acting OMB director, wrote in a letter accompanying the request. “DoD will still incur significant costs to transport personnel, supplies, and equipment back to their home stations. Funding to sustain the [Afghan National Security Force] will continue to be needed to ensure that Afghan forces can provide sufficient security. There will be continued costs to repair and replace equipment and munitions as DoD resets the force over the next few years.”

The administration also is re-proposing legislative language that would cap overall OCO funding at a cumulative $450 billion between 2013 and 2021. Assuming Congress went along with the administration’s proposals, that would allow for ongoing OCO budgets that averaged $33 billion between 2016 and 2021.

The White House delayed the OCO part of the request because, in March, it had not yet made a final decision about the residual presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of this calendar year.

DoD says the budget it’s requesting matches up with the 9,800 troops President Barack Obama decided to keep in Afghanistan during early 2015, which would be reduced by roughly half by the end of next year.

The OCO portion of the budget is not subject to the discretionary spending caps Congress set in the Budget Control Act, so it’s also noteworthy that for the most part, the administration appears not to have moved programs from the base budget into OCO as an end-run around sequestration.

The request does ask for funding to purchase a handful of aircraft and other weapons platforms but specifies that they’re to replace hardware that was lost in combat.

Also, compared with last year’s $85 billion OCO request, each of the military services would use fewer OCO dollars to fund service members’ pay and benefits. The Navy, for example, which is not shrinking in overall size as the U.S. draws down from Afghanistan, is using OCO to fund $331 million of its overall personnel costs in 2015, compared to $558 million in last year’s budget.

Of course, the OCO request still does include spending for plenty of items that aren’t directly related to Operation Enduring Freedom. The White House is using the vehicle to ask Congress for $5 billion for the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund the President announced earlier this month, and another $1 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative.

A lot has happened since DoD first rolled out its budget in March, though. In successive votes, both houses of Congress have shot down many of the Pentagon’s proposals to find cost savings within its base budget, and lawmakers also have their own ideas about how to deal with OCO.

A month ago, the House passed a 2015 Defense authorization bill that matched DoD’s $79 placeholder figure for OCO. Part of the reason for the higher price tag was that lawmakers used the fund, in part, to save some programs the Pentagon thinks it needs to cut, including the A-10 attack jet.

The Defense appropriations bill the House passed a week ago also included the higher figure. Shifting that amount of defense spending into OCO allowed the House to both reject the cuts it doesn’t like and stay just within the $496 billion cap that applies to 2015’s base budget.

Pentagon needs an acquisition system that knows how to say ‘good enough’

The House Armed Services Committee June 24 invited a panel of five former senior Defense officials and academics to testify about the history of what’s worked and what hasn’t in DoD acquisition as part of its lead-up to an expected package of acquisition reform legislation.

The hearing covered a lot of ground, but as witnesses testified about the current system’s shortcomings, one issue that was raised at several points was DoD’s lackluster capability to evaluate its weapons systems needs and make tradeoffs as a joint force rather than as stovepiped military services.

The case studies that witnesses offered as success stories tended to focus on programs that didn’t set overly ambitious goals and managed their requirements well, which is not exactly a surprise. But making those kinds of programs the rule rather than the exception will be pretty hard until Congress and DoD strengthen the joint community’s ability to make informed decisions, said Dr. Christopher Lamb, the deputy director at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

“You need an analytic structure in place that would allow you to fairly compare alternatives, from making trades on key performance parameters on platforms all the way up to operational concepts. If we really want to empower the secretary or somebody below the secretary to help make these tradeoffs, we need a much more robust joint analytics system,” Lamb said. “People don’t understand that the Pentagon has a very small amount of analytic talent and resources dedicated to joint analysis and huge amounts devoted to the services. That’s not necessarily bad if everyone keeps everything transparent. But that’s not the way things work today.”

Congress created the Joint Requirement Oversight Council (JROC) in part with that very notion in mind. DoD needed a way to make procurement decisions based on what the joint force would need if it were sent into a conflict, not based solely on what the individual military services wanted. But Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) lamented that things haven’t quite worked out that way.

“Sometimes just to get through the process can take more than a year, and it also seems to me that under JROC they don’t want to pick winners and losers,” she said. “They’re still usually saying yes to every [requirement]. So we not only have added time to the equation, but we have redundancy going on.”

Navy Vice Adm. David Vinlet (Ret.), the immediate past program manager for the F-35 program, said he generally found the JROC process to be a useful forum for settling differences between the services and that the council should be continued, but he acknowledged that big programs have a tendency to set goals that their operational tests don’t ultimately live up to.

“We get pretty agitated when we believe we can’t abide those, and we need somebody to be what I would call the ‘chief officer of good enough,'” he said. “I’m not talking about dumbing down the requirements for what our warfighters need, but when resources are constrained due to time, due to an operational threat that doesn’t appear with regard to any schedule, you have to account for the appearance of a threat, the lack of further resources, and those are very difficult decisions.”

The question of the Pentagon’s ability to act as one within the acquisition labyrinth especially is relevant when it needs to buy a lot of things very quickly, as was the case with the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicle program. As former secretary Robert Gates recounted in his recent memoir, the project only happened because he, personally, made it his top priority amid “a rebellion from all the senior uniformed leaders in the Pentagon.”

That’s probably a bad model for joint decision making about warfighting requirements. Gates wrote that media reports were what drew his attention to the need for a safer combat vehicle for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. His generals and admirals at the time weren’t asking for one.

Congress, Lamb said, shouldn’t rely on the judgment or tenacity of any individual future Defense secretary to devote the attention that’s required to make sure a program is managed well.

“We can’t rely on the secretary of Defense to intervene personally. He doesn’t have the bandwidth,” he said. “You have to be able to have the system more routinely make these kinds of reasoned judgments and get to the right answers. It can be boring to look at process, but have to go inside the walls of the Pentagon and see how those processes really work if you want a better acquisition system at the end of the day.”

DoD’s Ginman retiring, but not in a hurry

A quick update to a story we first reported June 25: Richard Ginman, the veteran DoD acquisition official who currently serves as director for procurement and acquisition policy, is retiring, but he’s not exactly running for the door.

We were first tipped off to his plans by a new DoD memo announcing the inaugural Richard Ginman Contingency Contracting Excellence Award, which officials said would be presented by Ginman during his retirement ceremony at a date still to be announced.

Our story evidently prompted Ginman’s inbox to begin filling up with congratulatory emails, to which he’s been responding that he won’t actually leave the post until late this year at the earliest, but most likely not until next March.

Air Force wants its users to be able to connect to secret networks from just about anywhere

Over the past few years, a lot of attention has been expended toward the topic of how DoD will integrate commercial mobile devices into its networks in a secure fashion, including questions about how data will be secured on the mobile device itself, how authentication will work, and how data will stay protected while it’s moving across commercial cellular networks.

The Air Force seems to be asking a much bigger question about mobile computing. The Air Force Network Integration Center is hunting for some combination of hardware and/or software that would give its users secure access to both secret and non-secret DoD networks over a public Internet connection, and not just via smartphones.

Those users, a new Air Force request for information suggests, should be able to safely connect to DoD systems via commercial cellular and WiFi networks or wired Internet connections, even while they’re deployed overseas. They should also be able to connect to both the unclassified-level NIPRNet and the secret-level SIPRNet, while meeting all of DoD’s myriad security protocols, including PKI authentication, and without lugging around different authentication hardware that’s specific to each classification level. Also, the solution should fully interoperate with the Air Force’s existing standard configuration for desktop computers.

It’s not clear precisely what the Air Force wants to buy, which is why this is an RFI and not a request for proposals. Overcoming the challenges the service identifies above sounds like a moonshot to me, but aiming high is definitely not a bad thing.


Another budget quandary for DoD: What if war funding dries up?

House panel targets DoD acquisition reform, but will that be enough?

DoD procurement chief Dick Ginman planning to retire

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