Clock ticking on DoD nominees to improve management, restore readiness

The number-two civilian jobs in all three military departments are vacant at the moment. In the case of the Navy, the post has been open for more than two years.

But the Senate could vote as soon as next month to simultaneously confirm new undersecretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The nominees say their top priorities will include restoring military readiness and reshuffling their services’ spending to deliver more “tooth” and less “tail,” but they’ll need to work quickly.

Patrick Murphy, the nominee to be the undersecretary of the Army, Janine Davidson, who’s up for the spot of undersecretary of the Navy and Lisa Disbrow, the Air Force comptroller tapped to be the Air Force undersecretary didn’t come armed with any specific policy proposals when they testified at their joint confirmation hearing last week. That may be wise, because they’ll only have about a year to make any impact on their respective services. Military undersecretaries sometimes stay on for a few months during the transition from one administration to another, but none in the modern era have served under two presidents for significant periods of time.

But all three nominees, each of whom are military veterans, said they would work to restore military readiness that’s been lost since the onset of sequestration in 2013, while also cutting management layers within their respective services.

Disbrow, who is currently the Air Force’s assistant secretary for financial management and is already performing the undersecretary’s job in an acting capacity, said her service has a lot of work to do.

“Our combat-coded readiness varies across our major weapon systems, but they’re critical in our fighters. On average, about 50 percent of our inventory on any day is not ready,” she said. “We have to focus on readiness and we have to keep a laser focus on keeping ahead of our adversaries.”

Davidson echoed the readiness worries on behalf of the Navy and Marine Corps.

“I would like this job because I think we’re at an incredibly important inflection point ,” said Davidson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and who was the first woman to serve as a tactical C-130 pilot during her earlier career in the Air Force. “We have to reset, and we have to prioritize our readiness. The Navy has some serious shortfalls when it comes to aviation readiness and ship maintenance. If confirmed, those will be my first priorities.”

The undersecretaries will have some additional funding to work with during their short tenures in comparison with the bleak outlook DoD faced under the Budget Control Act.

The budget agreement Congress passed last week not only busted the previous BCA caps, but added an additional $609 million beyond what the Obama administration had asked for in DoD operation and maintenance funds, the main accounts that fund most of the training exercises, depot maintenance and flight hours military units have skipped for funding reasons since 2013.

The Army is the largest beneficiary of the O&M plus-up: the final agreement added $337 million above the President’s budget request specifically to restore the readiness of Army units in addition to $1.2 billion the Army identified as a funding shortfall for ongoing operations in Afghanistan.

Beyond overall readiness, Murphy, a former Army officer and Pennsylvania congressman, said he sees his most important job over the next year as fulfilling the chief management officer role that’s designated by law for all of the military service undersecretaries, including responsibilities for audit readiness and overall management functions.

“We have to get after redundancies, spending, auditability, all of these issues,” he said. “We can’t come back to Congress year after year after year to say we’re working on it, we’re working on it. We need to execute.”

All three of the nominees pledged to pay special attention to reducing their respective departments’ headquarters staffs,  a subject Congress has pursued in several consecutive years through its annual defense authorization bills.

The most recent edition for fiscal 2016 requires a 25 percent cut in overall staffing levels over the next five years in pursuit of a $10 billion reduction in administrative costs over the same time period.

“The Army’s doing that already,” Murphy said. “It’s about changing spans of control. It’s about middle management.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been skeptical of previous DoD initiatives to cut the military’s headquarters staff, and has looked askance at the Air Force in particular over the past year, criticizing that service for simply reshuffling its personnel so that they were no longer counted as headquarters employees and then claiming extra credit for beating DoD’s previous targets for reducing headquarters staffs.

Disbrow acknowledged that the Air Force has not done enough to reduce its management layers.

“In alignment with the NDAA that was just approved, we continue to look at areas where we can consolidate and while we consolidate in those areas, also reduce staff,” she said. “We’ve had some success in our facility support area and in our intelligence area for reducing overhead as we consolidate and centralize. We have an independent study underway with two phases. First, to identify the scope of our problem and then to offer areas where we can put the right skill set in the right places, which is critical as we downsize. We haven’t done enough, and I look forward to doing a lot more if I’m confirmed.”

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