2022 spending bill fills holes in DoD’s long-underfunded facility maintenance budgets

Omnibus bill adds more than $1 billion in facility upkeep funding, an area DoD has knowingly neglected in its budgets for at least a decade.

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.

The 2022 appropriations bill President Joe Biden signed last week includes $1.2 billion above and beyond what the military services requested in the spending accounts they use to maintain and repair deteriorating facilities, going some way toward backfilling an infrastructure maintenance hole the Defense Department has been digging for at least a decade.

The final Congressional agreement gave big increases to each of the military departments’ facilities sustainment restoration and modernization (FSRM) accounts, compared to their spending requests. The Army’s appropriation totals $4.5 billion, 11.1% more than it requested. The Navy will have $3.4 billion, 15.4% above its request, and the Air Force received $4.2 billion, 8.7% more than its budget request. Those figures do not include the much smaller amounts set aside for the services’ National Guard and Reserve components.

Although the FSRM accounts are a drop in the bucket in the context of a nearly $730 billion budget, it’s an area where the department has consistently chosen to take “risk” at least since the onset of the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act in 2011.

But this year’s budget proposals showed the BCA caps weren’t the only motivator. Despite the caps’ expiration, each service chose to propose spending levels that still would have only covered 80% of the funding needs estimated by DoD’s own Facility Condition Index and Sustainment Management System.

And Defense officials have previously acknowledged those underinvestments have consequences. In a single year, between 2015 and 2016, the number of DoD facilities rated as in “failing” condition rose from 7% of its overall portfolio to 18.9%.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on facilities, energy and environmental programs last week, Defense officials did not provide updated estimates on facility conditions.

But in written testimony, Paul Cramer, the principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for installations, suggested the department is considering a pivot away from the current models it uses to assess facility conditions and building FSRM budgets. He said the new model for facilities spending would move away from assessments of DoD’s overall real property portfolios, and toward a new model that makes more “granular” assessments of each facility.

“It is guiding our transition to an asset management approach for budgeting for and managing the department’s infrastructure that addresses facility investment as a holistic program instead of independent sustainment, restoration and modernization programs,” he said. “As the system is implemented over the next few years, the department intends to set baseline parameters using factors such as mission criticality to set a minimum condition standard on its facilities.”

The Air Force has already made similar moves. Last year, the service began creating an “integrated priorities list” to replace its previous approach to FSRM funding, a “worst-first” approach that put its most deteriorated facilities — usually the most expensive ones to recapitalize — at the front of the line.

It’s possible that a long-term focus on mission criticality could have led to a different outcome in the recent fuel discharge episode that forced DoD to decide to drain and abandon its largest fuel storage facility in the Pacific, the 250-million-gallon storage bunker known as Red Hill.

The latest discharge into Oahu water supply, which sickened nearly 6,000 people and forced some 4,000 military members from their homes, appears to have been the result of operator error. But the facility had leaked fuel into groundwater supplies several times before, and has been subject to a consent order with Hawaii health officials since 2015 to reduce the chance of discharges from the aging facility, first built during World War II.

“Moving forward, DoD’s going to have to focus on this a lot more,” Tim Walton, a fellow and military logistics expert at the Hudson Institute told Federal News Network in an interview about the Red Hill closure decision. “In general, I think the department has tried to avoid recapitalizing these major projects that were built during World War II or the Cold War, just because they’re major expenses and they usually don’t have any large constituencies. It’s easier for members of Congress to point to the ship or the aircraft that’s built in their district. Few people get fired up about fuel tanks.”

There’s now at least a little bit of fire on infrastructure issues.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Readiness Subcommittee warned senior military officials last year that his subcommittee is “not messing around” in its desire to see improvements in the state of DoD’s organic industrial base, such as shipyards and munitions depots.

And last week’s hearing before the same subcommittee included a major focus on Red Hill, where Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele (D-Hawaii) noted that the new appropriations bill also includes $736 million to remediate the environmental damage from the latest discharge, on top of $403 in emergency funding Congress passed several weeks earlier, and is likely to cost the government billions of dollars more before the full extent of the damage is discovered.

“I’ll give you one example: The Red Hill Elementary School, which sits less than a mile from Red Hill, has started to see their toilets leak because the fuel in the water has been eroding the seals in the toilets, and they’ve had to replace them,” he said. “So there’s a lot of expenses out there that have not been reimbursed … and it may be very probable that we may never bring the Red Hill well back online to serve the Navy’s water system. We may need to drill new drinking water wells or to establish new monitoring wells in that area. The Board of Water Supply is already calling for water conservation efforts for individuals in the affected area and also to plan for water restrictions during the summer, so this is something that clearly is not going away.” —JS

Space Force going for digital fitness instead of testing

The Space Force has promised to be the first digital military service and it’s taking that role seriously even in the realm of physical fitness.

This year, the service is piloting a program that uses wearable tech to monitor guardians’ health in lieu of fitness tests.

After the testing, the Space Force said it will take a three-pronged approach at tackling fitness that is data-driven and focused on self-awareness rather than relying on a yearly physical fitness exam.

“It is time we implement a data-driven, research-informed, holistic health and fitness approach to increase the wellness and readiness of the force,” Patricia Mulcahy, deputy chief of space operations for personnel wrote in a March 16 memo.

The program will promote “physical activity, lifestyle/performance medicine principles and increase education and awareness to ensure all guardians are mentally and physically fit.”

The program will be implemented in 2023 and incorporate the use of wearable technology and a software that provides workout regiments and preventative health practices to increase self-awareness and provide continuous insight into health.

For this year, however, guardians will still need to complete the Air Force’s fitness program. But, the assessments will not determine retention or promotion eligibility or be used for disciplinary measures.

“Every guardian remains responsible for ensuring they are mentally and physically fit,” Mulcahy wrote. “We will embrace this exciting opportunity to combine leading-edge physiology and technology to foster a culture of wellness.”

The Space Force paired with a company called FitRankings for its pilot. The fitness platform tracks goals, and connects to other devices like FitBits and iPhones.

The company’s mission is to give organizations “the technology, tools, and support to create authentic and impactful digital fitness and health experiences for their communities,” the website states. “We give individuals the ability to connect their fitness data to organizations, causes, and experiences they care about.”

As the military continues to trying to attract talent for the 21st century it’s finding that not all careers need to uphold the physical standards of the past.

The Defense Department has been experimenting with and rethinking what physical tradeoffs are acceptable for people who work in the cyber realm and may never go into a real-world combat situation. — SM

DHA dropping the ball on screening, treatment for alcohol abuse

The Defense Health Agency may be failing service members in properly screening and treating them for alcohol disorders.

A report from the Defense Department Inspector General found that military health care providers did not provide annual tests in a timely manner to help identify hazardous alcohol users in nearly 78% of the service members in the seven units the office investigated.

“Units we reviewed were 66 to 200 days past the annual requirement,” the authors of the report wrote. “However, 15 service members did not receive their alcohol screening for more than 300 days past the due date.”

That’s not the only area where the military failed to help service members who may have issues with alcohol. Service members who went into clinics were not being tested for alcohol abuse either. Out of the 270 service members the DoD IG reviewed, 104 did not have an intake assessment to diagnose alcohol use disorder with DHA-established timeframes. Nearly 100 did not get the recommended treatment in a timely fashion and three service members who were diagnosed did not get treatment at all.

“Furthermore, 103 of the 270 service members we reviewed were involved in an alcohol-related incident. Of these 103 service members, 31 were not referred for an intake assessment within the Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force timeline requirements,” the authors wrote.

The DoD IG said delays in treatment and screening can have serious issues affecting physiological, psychological, familial and employment health.

In addition, DoD risks the health and readiness of service members who could be best served by treatment.

Heavy alcohol abuse is a significant problem in the military, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Alcohol misuse is strongly associated with mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression,” the DoD IG authors wrote. “If service members are concerned with their alcohol use or suspected of alcohol misuse, they can be referred to the substance abuse center, or the service member can self‑refer. Once referred, service members undergo a comprehensive intake assessment to determine their alcohol use diagnosis and the appropriate level of treatment.”

DoD IG is recommending that DHA require a standardized mechanism that will track when service members are due for their annual screenings.

“Furthermore, we recommend that the DHA director review the civilian hiring and retention practices for substance abuse personnel and make applicable improvements to minimize vacant positions,” the authors wrote. They go on to suggest DHA should “establish a maximum number of days between a substance abuse referral and an intake assessment for a substance use disorder; and establish the maximum number of days to provide substance abuse treatment following a diagnosis of a substance use disorder.” — SM

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