House panels want to save 18,000 military medical billets, strengthen supply chain

A mark from a House Armed Services subcommittee would put DoD's plans to cut medical billets on hold.

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Provisions aimed at saving 18,000 military medical billets, protecting the defense supply chain and overseeing the Pentagon’s cyber operations are likely to make it into the House version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act as the House Armed Services subcommittees released their marks of the bill Monday.

The House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee is pulling in the reins on the Defense Department’s plan to realign 18,000 medical service members to other operational and modernization priorities.

A House Armed Services Committee aide told reporters that lawmakers are concerned DoD is cutting the billets too soon. The mark prohibits DoD from reducing or realigning military medical end strength until analyses are conducted on manpower and the availability of health care services in local areas.

DoD already started its cut of the medical billets and as of April had 2,000 vacancies it purposely did not fill.

“For the billets that are coming offline in FY 20, those positions are not being filled now as they become vacant,” Vice Adm. Forrest Faison, the Navy’s surgeon general, said. “We’re working with our personnel command to identify those that have got critical impact to the fleet and to remote areas and put personnel in those locations as we work through this. But there are billets that are not being filled now because people cannot complete a full three year tour, because the position is coming out of the [health] budget.”

The military services plan to move the remaining roughly 16,000 into other non-medical areas over the next three-to-four years, mostly through attrition.

DoD’s 2020 budget request did not allocate extra funds to hire civilian medical employees to fill the vacant positions.

The reductions were driven, at least in part, by a congressionally-mandated report detailing how many and what types of medical professionals the military services need to fight wars. The report was delivered two years past its deadline, and its contents are classified.

As the personnel subcommittee worries about protecting medical billets, the intelligence and emerging threats subcommittee is concerned with protecting the nation’s technological edge and supply chain.

The intelligence and emerging threats mark requires DoD to come up with a strategy for 5G technologies and infrastructure.

5G has been a hot topic lately as the government is more concerned with companies like ZTE and Huawei using their products to benefit China.

“The potential for Chinese intelligence and security services to use Chinese firms as routine and systemic espionage platforms against the United States and our allies is concerning and a potential direct threat to our mandate to ensure national security and emergency preparedness communications,” Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

The mark also requires new oversight of DoD operations in cyberspace. The subcommittee wants Congress to be notified every time the president delegates the power for cyber operations to the defense secretary.

The mark also defines exactly what type of operations and thresholds Congress wants to be notified about in cyberspace.

The provisions stem from concerns about the White House’s cyber strategy, which was released last September.

House Armed Services Committee Intelligence and Emerging Threats Chairman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) told Federal News Network last November that the strategy is much more “forward leaning” than strategies of the past. The strategy focuses on great power competition and also allows DoD to more readily conduct cyber operations in defense of the nation outside of its own networks.

“We want to make sure they are held accountable and we are properly implementing these new strategies,” Langevin said.

What’s concerning is “the unintended consequences,” he added. “If we are going to be more proactive in cyberspace, I think that can be a good thing, but working with allies and having international coordination is essential.”

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