New review may give Pentagon rare chance to reinvent its advisory committees

One former member of the boards in question says they've long been too heavily dominated by members who are unlikely to provide innovative advice to the departm...

The DoD Reporter’s Notebook is a weekly summary of personnel, acquisition, technology and management stories that may have fallen below your radar during the past week, but are nonetheless important. It’s compiled and published each Monday by Federal News Network DoD reporters Jared Serbu and Scott Maucione.

DoD needs to embrace the weird with advisory boards, former member says

The Defense Department cleaned house with its advisory boards last week. Now a former Defense Business Board member and Silicon Valley entrepreneur says the Pentagon needs to embrace the outlandish if it wants those committees to return good results.

DoD has more than 40 advisory commissions that lend expertise on everything from actuarial issues to tech and innovation. However, the department is starting to wonder if the committees have been serving the Pentagon in the most helpful way.

“These committees are an artifact of when the status quo was okay and you got advice for 10% improvements,” Steve Blank, a former Defense Business Board member told Federal News Network. “DoD is at a crossroads in a lot of areas. There’s new technology, limited budgets and having to deal with adversaries who obsoleted a bunch of our advantages. DoD needs advice that is 10X advice, not 10% advice.”

Blank said DoD needs to bring in people who are going to push the envelope, and not the run of the mill traditional corporate CEO to serve on these boards.

“You won’t get the same advice from Elon Musk than you would from some old Boeing guy,” he said. “If you want to know how to make rockets 10% better then you would have a Boeing guy on the board. If you wanted to know how to reinvent rocketry then you’d have Elon on the on the board.”

The approach fits some of what DoD has been trying to do over the past few years by partnering with nontraditional companies to spur innovation. The Pentagon formed the Defense Innovation Unit and formed the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) to help with that goal.

The DIB, Blank said, is an exception to DoD’s usual stuffy committees. It boasts members like former Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The board is responsible for changing the way DoD things about artificial intelligence and software.

It even helped DoD’s acquisition office come up with a separate procurement track for software to better manage the quick lifecycle turnovers.

Schmidt testified before Congress last fall and similarly to Blank told lawmakers that DoD needs to take in the eccentric people who come up with great ideas.

“One of the hallmarks of American creativity has been that the greatest things come from the weirdest corners,” he said. “We want to make sure that those weird corners in the United States with clever people who are staying up all night drinking Diet Coke and eating hamburgers have the tools that they need to do global solutions very quickly.”

Blank said a third of  the committee board members should be “crazy outsiders” like the Schmidts, Musks and deGrasse Tysons of the world.

He added that the makeup of the boards should also include “crazy insiders,” who are “folks in DoD who are rebels at work. They have been banging their head against the wall trying to get leadership to pay attention to them and to be heard.”

Blank said a small percentage of the board should be from traditional companies and then another large group should be made up of traditional insiders who know the political process well.

He added that the boards need to limit their scope as well and focus on technologies, business practices, policy and human capital.

Another critique is that the current board structure pushes committees too far down in DoD. They report to undersecretaries or to assistant secretaries. Blank said the boards need top-level attention for the office of the Defense secretary or the deputy Defense secretary.

DoD is currently undergoing a review of about 40 boards to consider realignments, possible elimination, mission structure and the makeup of the boards.

The interim director of administration and management and the general counsel will lead the review. Each DoD component head that sponsors a Defense committee will conduct a business case analysis on their respective boards.

Component heads will submit their business cases by April 30; final recommendations are due to Austin on June 1.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the review is partly due to the Trump administration’s decisions to summarily remove members of panels like the Defense Business Board and Defense Policy Board, and install its own slate of appointees during the lame duck period after the presidential election.

“There is no question that the frenetic activity that occurred to the composition of so many boards in just the period of November to January deeply concerned the secretary and certainly helped drive him to this decision,” Kirby said. “This review will allow him now to quickly get his arms around the purpose of these boards and to make sure the advisory committees are in fact providing the best possible advice to department leadership.” — SM

COVID didn’t make a dent in military’s 2020 end strength

Coronavirus imposed serious challenges to the military’s recruitment and initial entry system in 2020, especially in the early days of the pandemic. But higher retention rates appear to have more than made up for those problems.

According to new Pentagon data, the services more than held their own in terms of overall active duty end strength, ending calendar year 2020 with numbers that are so similar to the same time a year before that you’d have to squint to see the differences. Across the six armed services, there were 1.34 million service members on active duty as of Dec. 31, 2020. That’s actually up slightly — by 7,000 members — compared to the same time a year before.

The Army ended the year with 482,343 soldiers, about a thousand more than at the end of 2019. The Navy and Air Force showed even bigger end strength gains. The Navy finished 2020 with 346,570 sailors, up 9,000 from the year before. There were 334,371 airmen at the end of 2020, nearly 2,100 more than at the end of 2019 (the Air Force’s reported figures include the nascent Space Force).

The Marine Corps and Coast Guard reported decreases, but not enormous ones. There were 181,031 Marines at the end of 2020, 4,900 fewer than at the end of calendar year 2019. And there were 41,412 coastguardsmen at the end of 2020, down just 339 from the year before.

Those figures aren’t especially significant for legal purposes, because the end strength numbers Congress sets each year are targets the services need to meet by the end of the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, not the calendar year. But each of the services are already a hair’s breadth away from those figures, and assuming retention stays high, they’ll need to calibrate their recruiting and retention strategies accordingly.

The Air Force and Navy have already started asking at least some service members to hang up their uniforms before their active service commitments are up.

The Air Force’s Palace Chase program aims to convince airmen in some occupational specialties to move from active duty to the National Guard or Air Force Reserve. As an additional inducement to do so, officials announced last month they were reducing the amount of time they’d otherwise have to commit to staying in the guard or reserve once they made the switch.

Similarly, on Jan. 28, the Navy announced the first slate of ratings that will be eligible for its newly-relaunched Enlisted Early Termination Program (EETP).

As of now, the service is targeting nearly 800 billets for early-outs, and says applications will be considered on a first-come-first-serve basis. Navy officials have previously said their program isn’t solely meant to reduce headcount, but also to free up space in “overmanned” specialties to give advancement opportunities to younger sailors within those ratings. —JS

20 years in, IC is still funding innovative research grants

Robots, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and many other futuristic technologies are all projects that the Intelligence Community’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowships have worked on.

Now, in its 20th year, the program is looking for new candidates and reflecting back on some of the successes of the last two decades.

“The program supports unclassified research in partnership with U.S intelligence community partners, and it’s really targeting academic institutions,” John Beieler, director of science and technology for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “These are academic researchers who have received their Ph.D.s that are now doing kind of their first work outside after their Ph.D.”

Each year ODNI asks members of the IC to submit areas where they would like further research done. From there grants are given to researchers on a variety of subjects.

“These research appointments are typically two years in length, and we’re currently accepting applications for the 2021 research opportunities until Feb. 26,” Beieler said. “In any given year, we’ll have a few dozen topics to go out to request responses. Not all of those get responses, obviously some topics are very hot. AI topics tend to get a ton of responses.”

The program is open to U.S. citizens only.

Beieler said looking back over the last 20 years, the IC has funded some vanguard studies.

“One current research grant is designing algorithms that allow robots to execute complex manipulation tasks, like repairing satellites,” he said. This robotic satellite repair and assembly can both reduce the cost and increase the scope and efficiency of future space missions.” — SM

Army sends generals to talk to future leaders about the service of the future

About 200 Army ROTC cadets got some high-profile advice as 16 generals gathered online to impart their knowledge on future soldiers.

The leadership symposium — which brought together cadets from 19 colleges and universities like the University of Maryland and Howard University — is in its fourth year, but things looked a little different in 2021.

Generals and cadets had to gather on Microsoft Teams instead of in person Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, where the event usually takes place.

“People are the number one priority for our chief of staff and secretary of the Army,” Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, the Army’s personnel chief, told Federal News Network. “It’s not only our number one priority, but a philosophy as well to care for them. In building this, I wanted to share with the cadets their role in building cohesive teams that are trained well and combat ready.”

Cadets are chosen for the program for showing leadership qualities. Some wrote essays to join the event.

“A future lieutenant wrote a paper on the many gender aspects of the future army combat fitness test,” Brito said. “It’s something we are testing now, but will be a formalized fitness test in a few years from now. That is great. We have [a] future leader who will be on the front line with the soldiers who gave some thought on the gender aspects, the physical aspects, the testing aspects of a future program.”

Brito said this year is different than past as the Army starts to take into account how Generation Z will take the mantle of the Army.

“We are discussing things like knowing how to connect to the soldiers and understanding aspects of social media,” Brito said. “Those things may be different from when I was first lieutenant, and more importantly, we are talking about a selfless leadership style and how to commit to the force that they’re leading.” — SM

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