Navy thinks it has some specific answers to the ‘fix our computers’ complaint

One of the Navy's diagnoses for poor user experience is endpoint security run amok, multiple malware scanners fighting each other constantly. The service has a ...

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.

Many of our readers will have seen the “fix our computers” open letter that went viral on Twitter and LinkedIn a couple weeks back, eventually provoking an official DoD response. We made a deliberate decision not to pile on in this space right away, mainly because complaints about poor user experiences on government-furnished machines are (sadly) common enough that they’re not especially newsworthy.

The reasons behind the “fix our computers” problem are fairly complex, but I thought one of the most salient points the post’s author, Michael Kanaan, the operations director at that Air Force/MIT AI Accelerator made was the portion that pointed out the endpoint security bits. If two or five different malware scanners are running at all times, often fighting against one another, your desktop or laptop is spending more hardware resources toward looking for threats than doing its actual job. Opening that Excel sheet is going to take a while.

The Navy, it turns out, has flagged the same problem, and has at least the beginnings of a plan to fix it, mainly by leaning on the built-in security features of Windows 10. Those security features, you may recall, were the biggest reason DoD told everyone they needed to make the jump to Windows 10 in the first place.

“Our goal is to simplify the entire approach,” Barry Tanner, the acting executive director for the Navy Program Office for Digital and Enterprise Services told Navy IT professionals at a conference in San Diego last week. “We’ve successfully demonstrated the ability of the built-in operating system capabilities to execute the endpoint and response functions we need, and we have the exceptions to policy we need from the DoD CIO to deploy it at scale across the enterprise.”

And the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command is directing the rest of the Navy to adopt the same approach, and “sunset” some of the third-party security software that’s been slowing individual computers to a crawl.

“We did a demonstration for the DoD CIO’s office on what that does for an operational perspective last week, and we’re very excited about where it’s going,” Tanner said. “It doesn’t help us yet on [secret networks], but we’re working with Microsoft to give us that capability on our SIPRNet endpoints as well.”

Meanwhile, the Navy is trying to be better about delivering modern computing devices to its users. The latest iteration of its Next Generation Enterprise Network contract (NGEN-R) calls for the vendor, HP, to provide those devices as a service — rent them, rather than buy them, is how Tanner puts it.

The phase-in to that model has been slower than the Navy hoped: it originally awarded the End User Hardware contract in October 2019, but Tanner said the service still thinks it can use the contract to move to a cycle in which individual computers are replaced once every three years, rather than the previous five-year average.

And then there’s the question of how big a role endpoint security will play in the “zero trust” architecture DoD is moving toward. The Navy is also leaning heavily toward a virtualized computing model that lets sailors connect from anywhere, and not just from government-furnished devices.

The Navy Reserve, given its geographically distributed workforce, has been a proponent of that model for years, and has had a good degree of success in the past year. A 250-sailor virtual desktop pilot in which users could connect to Navy networks from personally-owned devices delivered “overwhelmingly positive” results, Vice Adm. John Mustin, said last month.

The broader Navy is also interested in a device-agnostic approach as part of at least a “bring-your-own-authorized-device” model, Tanner said.

“We’re still driving toward a solution where we can provide protection of Navy data on personal devices,” he said. “It’s a tougher nut to crack to make sure we have the appropriate level of control and defense while not owning the entire device. We have a solution, and we’re working with Microsoft to get that engineered, but that’s another access option we want to provide so that they can use a personal device to get things done without a full [government] desktop implementation.” —JS

Air Force making multi-domain training a way of life for airmen

The Air Force is phasing out one of its career fields, but that doesn’t mean the body of knowledge will be going away, in fact, it will be expanding.

The service announced Feb. 17 that multi-domain warfare officers will no longer exist, the occupation is only held by 136 airmen. However, the Air Force said the reasoning behind the phase out is because it wants all of its airmen to have some sort of multi-domain expertise.

“We want to utilize the depth of knowledge and experience that our multi-domain warfare officers bring to the fight and to the maximum extent possible need their help to train and educate airmen to fight and win against a peer threat in all domains,” said Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, deputy chief of staff for operations.

The military services have put a large emphasis on multi-domain fighting as the Defense Department has shifted its focus to more near-peer competition.

DoD envisions that future wars will be multi-domain in terms of bringing together joint operations like air and land power or using space and cyber to assist service members in the field.

One of the most anticipated programs DoD is working is Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), which will merge domains and joint forces so they can work more seamlessly by using data.

The Air Force is specifically in charge of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) aspect of JADC2. That program will allow the services to share information faster to enable technologies like artificial intelligence.

“The Air Force describes ABMS as its effort to create an internet of things,” a Congressional Research Service report states.

Much like how the Space Force is expecting a base knowledge of coding and programing from its guardians, with the dissolution of the multi-domain warfare officer, the Air Force will train its airmen to operate in an environment that blends air, land, sea, space and cyber.

“We must be prepared to face future conflicts with our joint and combined partners, and the knowledge Multi-Domain Warfare Officers bring to the fight is too critical to confine to a single career field,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown . “To continue outpacing near-peer adversaries, we must reinforce all Air Force members’ multi-domain expertise.”

The occupation itself has only been around since 2018. The service created the position as a way to “develop dedicated operational-level command and control experts responsible for integrating joint and coalition capabilities across multiple warfighting domains.”

Training for those airmen included a 20-week course with 840 hours of joint academics and 310 hours of training exercises.

The Air Force says starting in late March it will begin to reassign the 136 multi-domain officers to new occupations. — SM

AFGE takes aim at DoD hiring freezes and cuts

The largest federal union is pushing for lawmakers to address hiring freezes and caps at the Defense Department, some of which date back decades.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is asking Congress to repeal what it calls arbitrary personnel caps on DoD headquarters. It’s also asking Congress to encourage the Pentagon to start filling medical positions.

All of the suggestions are for the 2023 defense authorization bill.

In the past, Congress has cut or put limits on the Pentagon’s headquarters staff in an attempt to rein in bureaucratic bloating and save money. In 2016, DoD said it would attempt to save $1.9 billion through a 25% staff reduction.

Those cuts were met with scrutiny from the beginning, many lawmakers opposing the reductions said simply slashing positions was an obtuse solution to the bloating problem.

Sen. Tim Kaine, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, said issues with military housing were tied to the reductions.

“A couple years after the cuts we had huge crises and challenges in the military housing program,” Kaine told Federal News Network last year. “Turns out that one of the reasons for that is the arbitrary cut of headquarters staff. The military housing staffers were significantly reduced, which made it harder for them to exercise oversight over the private housing contractor.”

AFGE asserts that the cuts aren’t saving money either. The letter points to two instances where DoD ended up spending more money on contractors in lieu of hiring employees.

“As missions grew, only 22% of the DoD’s intelligence and security office were civilian employees, with the remainder comprised of 78% non-permanent personnel — consisting of contractors, joint duty assignees, military/reservists, and liaison officers or detailees resulting in a loss of accountability,” the letter states in referencing a Government Accountability Office report on the matter.

In a more recent controversial issue, AFGE wants DoD to pick up its civilian medical job hiring. The Pentagon has been bantering about the possibility of officials cutting thousands of positions in the Military Health System.

DoD’s plan is to shift more care into the private sector, but recent NDAA’s have slowed down the strategy  in hopes of gaining more information on the effects.

In the meantime, DoD hasn’t been filling jobs as they go vacant. It’s turned into a de facto staffing reduction as a result.

AFGE is asking lawmakers to encourage DoD to backfill those positions, at least until DoD and Congress have come up with a proper course of action. — SM

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