DoD Reporter’s Notebook

jared_notebook_notext“DoD Reporter’s Notebook” is a biweekly feature focused on news about the Defense Department and defense contractors, as gathered by Federal News Network DoD Reporter Jared Serbu.

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Biden’s DoD will huddle about how to replace CMO position

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 Pentagon is preparing for its future without a chief management officer position, a role Congress eliminated in this year’s defense authorization act.

Michael McCord, the nominee to be the next Defense Department comptroller, said if he’s confirmed, part of his job will be to flesh out how his position and a handful of other top DoD roles will absorb the CMO’s duties.

“One of my earliest tasks would be to sit down with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and others as they are confirmed in that space,” McCord told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation director who’s been nominated and the chief information officer, I believe, has not been nominated yet; all those players would have a role in the structure that former Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist left.”

McCord, who served as comptroller under President Barack Obama as well, said his focus would be making sure that the duties that remain with the comptroller make the department more effective.

“We have doubled down to the point of maybe overdoing it over the last decade on trying to make it focused only on efficiency and cutting billets,” McCord said. “We need to focus more on outcomes and effectiveness and if that role stays with comptroller, I would need to hire a somewhat different type of workforce and move them over if they haven’t left the department from the CMO office.”

Norquist directed a plan to dissolve and redistribute the CMO’s functions a week before the end of the Trump Administration. It strengthened the comptroller’s office to take on business process issues as well as financial issues, and also made the comptroller into DoD’s performance improvement officer.

“Building on the gains we have made with the financial statement audit and development of Advanced Analytics for Executives tool, [the department will] expand the role of the undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) to improve accountability and performance in DoD business operations,” Norquist wrote.

Since taking office Hicks has not said if she will continue Norquist’s plan or distribute responsibilities differently. McCord made it seem like there would be a meeting of the minds on the issue once more nominees were in office.

Congress got rid of the CMO position because it was disappointed in its efforts to fundamentally change the business practices of DoD.

The Defense Business Board gave Congress a handful of options to replace the CMO, including vesting more power in the deputy defense secretary position or creating a second deputy defense secretary, but ultimately Congress decided to simply dissolve the position and gave DoD a large amount of discretion on how it would go forward. — SM


DoD can’t calculate improper payments to workforce because of ‘unreliable’ methods at DFAS

In this space last November, Federal News Network noted that DoD had just reported a massive increase in improper payments to its civilian workforce for 2020, owing mostly to what Pentagon financial officials called a “new sampling plan and testing methodology.” But as it turns out, the latest estimate — $5 billion — is really more of a guess, because the new methodology itself is unreliable.

That’s according to the DoD Inspector General’s latest review of the Pentagon’s improper payments, which found the department is failing to comply with federal improper payment reporting requirements for the ninth year in a row.

The IG found the Defense Finance Accounting Service DFAS was using ill-conceived methods to detect error rates for both its civilian and military employees. But the civilian area is where the department reported the biggest year-over-year increase in 2020. It estimated 8% of payments to civilians were either too high or too low last year — a massive jump from the 0.14% estimated improper payment rate for 2019.

But auditors now say those numbers are untrustworthy for at least two reasons. First, DFAS used garbled data to calculate the error rates for both military and civilian employees.

“By using an unreliable methodology to calculate the gross pay amounts for the population, DFAS personnel recognized the amounts did not match the [leave and earnings statements] and modified the amounts in the sample results population, creating variances in the gross pay amounts used to calculate the improper payment estimates,” according to a report the IG issued last week.

Another problem happened when the department, apparently by mistake, left its civilian mariner workforce completely out of its calculations for the civilian pay accounts; those paychecks alone account for $538 million. And the oversight happened in spite of the fact that the IG noticed the same problem two years ago, and in spite of the fact that DoD agreed to correct the error at the time.

The department told auditors it really has fixed the problems this time, and the revised methodologies will be reflected in its 2021 financial statement later this year.

Overall, the IG found the department is falling short on two out of the six requirements in the Payment Integrity Information Act. The employee pay issues caused it to fail the requirement to publish reliable estimates of its improper payments.

The second failure came about because the department didn’t meet its improper payment reduction target of 0.76% for military health benefits. DoD said the majority of those problems happened because one of its TRICARE contractors didn’t process health claims accurately. —JS


DoD fighting an uphill battle with service member vaccinations

The Defense Department is concerned about the number of service members who are willing to get the coronavirus vaccine, as many still refuse to get the shot.

With just 27% of military personnel fully vaccinated, DoD said it does not have any issues with supplying the vaccine, only with getting troops to take the vaccination.

In response to a question from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), during a Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee hearing about whether the president should mandate the vaccine, Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said:

“I appreciate that question. I never thought I’d have those words come out of my mouth. But this is something that’s been a concern for us in how do we encourage and engage with our service members for them to accept vaccination. It’s been tough and I think those who want vaccination have been able to get it.”

Adirim said DoD is using every avenue available from the installation level up to engage with those who are hesitant about the vaccine.

“What we’re finding is that even those who were in the earlier tiers of the prioritization scheme are slowly starting to accept vaccination,” Adirim said. “It’s now four-five months after we started vaccinating and I think a large proportion of our service members as well as other DoD beneficiaries have said, ‘You know what, I’d like to wait and see what happens.’”

DoD has done multiple townhalls with senior leaders explaining the effectiveness and safety of the shot.

Service members are not mandated to take the shot because it is only approved those emergency-use authorization.

Adirim said DoD is not at this time considering making the vaccine mandatory.

DoD has said in the past that about one-third of service members have been declining to get the vaccine. — SM

 


Calls to move military sexual assault cases to independent prosecutors reach a boiling point 

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.

On the heels of the Army’s investigation of the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, the military is facing a wave of pressure from both sides of the aisle to move the prosecution of sex crimes out of the chain of command.

The Guillén investigation is another piece of growing evidence that commanders are ignoring sexual harassment and assault allegations, making them unreliable arbiters. Now the report, legislation and statements from former top military officials are piling up to change the longstanding process.

Guillén was sexually harassed, went missing and was murdered last April in Ft. Hood, Texas. The investigation into her death found her leaders failed to take appropriate action. The report goes on to say Guillén’s harasser created an intimidating, hostile environment.

“The 3rd Cavalry Regiment (3CR) did not sufficiently emphasize the response and prevention of sexual harassment,” the report, released Friday, states. “Overall, 3CR’s command climate did not sufficiently emphasize the response and prevention of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Recovering from long standing deficiencies, the ineffectiveness of Ft. Hood’s sexual harassment and assault response and prevention program compounded 3CR’s problem. 3CR’s leaders, supervisors, and Chains of Command lacked understanding of their responsibilities. When presented with allegations, Guillén’s chain of command failed to take appropriate action.”

Along with the report, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) released a bill last week addressing sexual assault in the military, which would create an independent prosecutor for sex crimes.

“The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act takes important, commonsense steps to deliver justice for survivors of serious crimes and prevent sexual assault in our armed forces,” Gillibrand said last week. “I am proud to introduce this new, bipartisan legislation and I thank all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for being my partners in this fight. With strong support in Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House this is a defining moment for passage and I’m confident we can get it done.”

The bill now has 46 co-sponsors, 10 of which are Republicans, including some of the most right-wing members of the party such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). With support from a wide range of ideological perspectives, and from nearly half the Senate sponsoring the bill, it has a very high likelihood of being included in the 2022 defense authorization bill — a piece of legislation that has made it into law 60 years in a row.

“For years, senior military leaders have acknowledged that sexual assault and harassment are a cancer ripping at the fabric of the force,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and former chief prosecutor of the Air Force. “The passage of this critical legislation will increase our military’s readiness and ability to bring the fight to the enemy, and will finally provide a real opportunity for justice for survivors.”

The Pentagon’s independent review commission on sexual assault also recommended that sex crimes be prosecuted independently.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said in the past that he is open to all options.

Last Friday, during an event at the Aspen Institute, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said, “The secretary is reviewing that input and talking to us. We have a very deliberative process here inside the Pentagon, where commander viewpoints and certainly the viewpoints of the leadership and the military departments will be important in forming the secretary’s decision. We believe accountability has to be part of the solution set. Prevention is incredibly important, but we’re not leaving accountability off the table. We know that there’s a lack of trust and faith in the institution to deliver.”

Michael Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told POLITICO last week that he supports taking prosecutions out of the chain of command as well.

“I’m at a point now where I am ready to support removal, which is a huge step for me because I recognize how serious that issue is,” he said. “We just can’t keep doing what we’re doing because it hasn’t worked.”

Members of the House are also in support of legislation similar to Gillibrand’s bill. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who heads the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, has long championed the issue.

There were estimated to be nearly 21,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2018, the last recorded data released by DoD. — SM


Rapid acquisition is fine, but don’t forget to fly before you buy

Congress has given the Defense Department a lot of latitude to bypass its usual acquisition rules over the last five years, mainly with the goal of moving faster.

From the perspective of DoD’s top testing official, that’s all well and good, as long as the need for speed doesn’t overtake the imperative to kick the tires on a new system before the department invests billions of dollars procuring it.

Testifying last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Raymond O’Toole, DoD’s acting director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) said he’s especially worried that the military services are skipping crucial testing steps for programs that use the newly-enacted Middle-Tier of Acquisition (MTA) authority, designed for rapid prototyping and rapid fielding of new systems.

“While DOT&E fully supports the MTA concept of faster acquisition and fielding in order to get capability to warfighters more quickly, MTA programs still need to be positioned to assess and demonstrate operational performance — what the system can and cannot do, and whether employment and unit tactics, techniques, and procedures can remediate system shortcomings,” he said. “An adequate operational demonstration, or an otherwise tailored operational test, must be executed to provide an opportunity to ‘fly before you buy.’”

MTA — sometimes called “Section 804” authority — lets the military services bypass most of the usual policy requirements in DoD’s acquisition guidebook for programs that are expected to either finish their prototyping or be fully-fielded within five years of their inception.

O’Toole said DOT&E is currently overseeing 28 separate MTA programs. Some have wisely embraced early operational tests on their own: he cited the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft and the Marines’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle as examples.

Others, not so much.

“MTA test strategies often lack the rigor typically required to demonstrate operational effectiveness, suitability, survivability and lethality. They also frequently lack well-defined resources to plan and execute operational testing and to properly train the personnel involved,” he said.

To be fair to MTA programs, O’Toole also pointed out that some of DoD’s biggest programs, using traditional acquisition methods, have also put procurement ahead of rigorous testing. The F-35 program, for example, is still only in the initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) stage, despite having already procured hundreds of jets. The $13 billion aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ford hasn’t even started the formal IOT&E process, despite having been afloat for four years now.

And he said some of the fault lies within the testing community itself, which hasn’t quite adapted to the policy imperative to acquire systems more quickly, and will likely need more funding to do the sort of quick-turn testing envisioned by approaches like Middle-Tier Acquisition.

“For test and evaluation to add value to the acquisition process, our infrastructure, tools and personnel must keep up with rapidly changing warfighting technology and threats,” O’Toole said. “To this end, earlier this year, DOT&E developed a science and technology strategy to guide test and evaluation modernization. With the right resources, we hope to begin implementing it by the start of the next fiscal year.” —JS


Coast Guard working on retaining and recruiting women and minorities

The Coast Guard is making progress on removing barriers to entry and retention for women and minorities in the service.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said he wants the branch to be 25% women and 35% minorities.

“We’re making progress, but it’s slow,” Schultz told members of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee last week. “If I did nothing but bring women into Cape May at 4,000 a year for the next four years, and every single woman I brought in stayed [in] the service then we’d only move 15% to probably 18%. I can’t find 4,000 women right now at that pace.”

The Coast Guard commissioned the RAND Corporation to look into why the service was having trouble retaining women, especially at the mid-career level.

“We were retaining women, somewhere between 5% and 10% depending on what point you look into the career trajectories at a lower rate than their male counterparts,” Schultz said. The Coast Guard is now addressing some of the issues the RAND study pointed out.

Schultz said the service has instituted a more integrated total force to allow women to take 84 days of maternity leave.

The service has promised to try to station dual military spouses together as much as possible as well.

The Coast Guard also hired RAND to conduct a study on minority recruitment and retention, which will end up on Schultz’s desk in July.

In the meantime, the service is implementing recommendations from its diversity and inclusion action plan. About 20 of the 125 suggests have been implemented and Schultz said the remaining will be put into place by September.

“We’ve also brought onboard five new officer recruiters that’ll be linked to minority serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities,” Schultz said. “They’ll be in Atlanta, they’ll be in Norfolk, Virginia; New Orleans, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and one programmatically in Washington. I think this is the start of an increasing footprint there but we are trying to take our recruiting efforts to parts of America that allow us to grow the ranks.” — SM


JADC2 strategy in the works, possibility for investment fund

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 military will soon have an overarching, official strategy for one of its biggest joint service ventures in years.

The Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort is meant to connect multiple domains, weapons systems and sensors to help warfighters make decisions faster. The program will help bring together multiple technologies so troops can have better awareness of their environment, call on assistance from drones or communicate complex ideas with peers by sharing files, maps and more.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, the chief information officer for the Joint Staff, says the overarching strategy for JADC2 will soon be briefed to the deputy defense secretary, and then the military is hoping to have the defense secretary sign the document.

Crall said the strategy “will codify the lines of effort and our approach to delivering the capabilities required to JADC2.”

The military is creating two different strategies: one classified and the other unclassified.

“The areas that you might suspect that we have kept classified are surrounding the nuclear command, control and communications apparatus,” Crall said last week at the C4ISRNet Conference. “It’s not classified that we have a line of effort that involves nuclear. What is classified, of course, are the details surrounding that particular line of effort. The other lines of effort that we have listed are pretty open and I think the readers will be able to get the full sense of the direction JADC2 is heading, and maybe some of the delivery milestones that we’re looking to achieve.”

The military already has a JADC2 cross functional team that is working with the military services on their lines of effort. The Air Force is in charge of the Advanced Battle Management System, a network intended to provide data to pass information across all domains. The Army is working network modernization called Project Convergence to enable multidomain operations. The Navy is conducting Project Overmatch, which develops a new fleet architecture using artificial intelligence and manned/unmanned teaming.

One of the most important parts of JADC2 is adopting new technologies quickly, and then integrating them into the system.

“In the digital age, putting us on a five-year acquisition cycle for funding makes it really challenging to identify a set of capabilities or requirements,” Crall said. “We end up getting yesterday’s technology delivered tomorrow by the time those funding streams come through and you execute those contracts.”

Crall said the Defense Department is working with Congress on the possibility of an investment capital fund that would earmark money for multiple uses.

“It’s not too specific, so that allows it to be spent quickly,” he said. “We could probably move faster to retire legacy and onboard some modern things.” — SM


DoD sheds more light on how it fended off Solarwinds attack

Defense officials have already attributed the Pentagon’s apparent escape from the recent Solarwinds hack to the Joint Force Headquarters-DoD Information Networks (JFHQ-DoDIN)’s ability to order immediate action across the department’s sprawling IT enterprise whenever a serious vulnerability is found. Last week, they shed a bit more light on how that process actually worked.

Most of the department’s quick response boiled down to what Brig. Gen. Paul Fredenburgh, the joint force headquarters deputy commander, termed a “unique authority” to direct specific actions across 44 different DoD IT organizations. In the case of Solarwinds, JFHQ-DoDIN told administrators in each of those areas of operation to disconnect any systems that might be affected by the newly-disclosed vulnerability and start patching right away.

“We also leveraged intelligence and information from our commercial partners, those indicators of compromise, to allow us the ability to clear our terrain and share that information with all the 44 DoDIN elements so they could continue to look for those indicators,” Fredenburgh told a conference hosted by AFCEA International last week. “The other thing we’re able to do is leverage those indicators of compromise to develop other mitigation measures and defensive measures.”

And that’s where JFHQ-DoDIN’s linkage with the Defense Information Systems Agency turned out to be extremely helpful (DISA’s director is also the commander of the joint force headquarters). Since DISA manages all 12 of DoD’s major interconnections with the public internet, it was able to quickly use those newly-developed threat indicators to watch for signs that the Russian government hackers who planted the Solarwinds vulnerability might be trying to actively make use of it.

“When you think about the cyber terrain, the forward edge of the battlefield is where the DoDIN connects with the internet,” he said. “So we were able to work with DISA and develop signatures to not only detect, but actually block adversarial activity that could have exploited this. So that partnership is absolutely critical.”

Defense officials have previously said there had been 1,500 instances of the affected Solarwinds Orion software on DoD’s networks at the time the hack was discovered. Of those, 560 were determined to have been running the Russian-created exploit, but the Pentagon says it has not been able to find any evidence that foreign adversaries or anyone else managed to leverage it against DoD. —JS

DHA establishes fifth marketplace for healthcare

Military treatment facilities across the southeastern region of Virginia are forming the Defense Health Agency’s newest medical market.

The juncture will bring together 17 different military hospitals and clinics into what DHA is calling the Tidewater market. It’s the fifth such market created by the agency since it began assuming responsibility of military treatment facilities (MTFs) from the military services.

The markets are not just the MTFs, but also a grouping of private TRICARE partners, Veterans Affairs hospitals, medical universities and other health care providers. In the market, they operate as a system to support the sharing of staff, patients, budget and other functions to better deliver and coordinate care.

“The establishment of this market provides a true opportunity to optimize health care for our beneficiaries by focusing on outcomes and access across the Tidewater market,” said Navy Rear Adm. Darin Via, Tidewater market manager. “It also allows us to work towards standardization of processes, creating an easier environment for our patients to navigate within.

Patients will be able to more easily schedule appointments across multiple facilities and meet specific demands to get more holistic care.

“Transition will have no immediate impact on patient care and will be seamless to beneficiaries,” he said. “This transformation builds on our successes on the battlefield with an eye on emerging global challenges to ensure we are ready to fight tonight.”

DHA’s four other health markets include the National Capital Region, Central North Carolina, Jacksonville and Coastal Mississippi markets, which were all established in the beginning of 2020.

This is the first market creation since the COVID-19 pandemic.

DHA is congressionally mandated to take over all of the MTFs from the services by the end of September.

DHA paused the process at the beginning of the pandemic to reassess how the private hospitals in the healthcare markets could handle demand from military families and retirees.

“The markets in some of the areas changed significantly, just like you saw in the newspaper and elsewhere, a lot of providers closed up their doors, and a lot of access went away,” Dr. Brian Lein, DHA assistant director for healthcare administration, told Federal News Network in February. “The United States lost a lot of hospitals, and hospital capability, especially in some smaller communities, where it couldn’t support those hospitals in terms of finances.”

The transition includes 721 military treatment facilities and 174,000 health care personnel, including active-duty service members, civilian employees and contractors, which provide care to 9.5 million TRICARE beneficiaries. The facilities will eventually be clustered into 21 large markets that encompass about two-thirds of patient interactions. The rest are in 16 small market regions or stand-alone hospitals and clinics — think rural areas with a large military presence.

Due to COVID the Defense Department’s health program is currently experiencing a budget deficit of nearly $700 million. That is expected to increase to $1.8 billion by the end of the year. DoD is looking internally for ways to make up that gap. — SM


Military exchanges open to DoD civilian employees, retirees next month

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.

Military exchange stores will soon have a whole lot more customers than before after a new Defense Department directive expanded access.

Nearly 600,000 civilian employees who work for the Defense Department and the Coast Guard will now be able to shop in the stores, which are sales tax-free and offer some discounts compared to major outlets.

DoD issued the directive on April 12, the stores have 30 days to comply and let the new civilian customers into the stores.

It’s not just working civilians who are gaining new exchange benefits. Civilians who retired from a military department or from the Coast Guard will get access to the exchanges’ online stores, but not to the physical locations. All honorably discharged veterans will now be able to shop online as well.

Verifications for the new benefits are being conducted through the Defense Manpower Data Center. DoD is currently updating its systems.

DoD is also loosening some of its restrictions on family members, shoppers with the benefits can make purchases for dependents.

The privileges do not count for the purchase of tobacco, alcohol or for military uniforms.

DoD started expanding some of its shopping benefits last November.

The department created the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit, which opened the online exchanges to 18 million veterans. — SM


Army wants new vendor to handle large-scale cloud migrations

The Army has taken significant steps in the last several months to smooth the process of moving its applications into commercial cloud environments. And now that some of the basic building blocks are in place, it’s looking into the possibility of hiring a single contractor to handle the heavy lifting of migrating applications and systems en masse.

In a request for information the service issued last week, officials said their initial plans are to use the contract to migrate between 50 and 150 applications to the commercial cloud each year. According to a draft statement of objectives, the winning vendor would have several tasks: Assessing the Army’s existing inventory of applications, proposing ways to get them cloud-ready, and then handling the actual migrations.

The Army is willing to make exceptions, but in most cases, it wants those applications moved into its existing cArmy environment — the enterprise cloud service that’s currently made up of Amazon and Microsoft Azure offerings. And officials want the new contractor to use the Army’s own cloud migration tools to the greatest extent possible, including its Coding Resources and Transformation Environment (CReATE).

The new vendor would work for the Army Enterprise Cloud Management Agency — known until last month as the Enterprise Cloud Management Office. That organization has been working for the past year not just to stand up Army-wide cloud contract offerings, but to relieve individual Army commands of some of the planning and execution work involved in moving their data and applications to the cloud.

In February, for example, the Army earned an authority to operate for a new DevSecOps software pipeline that will automate much of the traditional security approval process and get new applications into the cloud more quickly.

Paul Puckett, ECMA’s director, told Federal News Network last month that other process improvements had already shrunken the Army’s timeline for a typical cloud migration.

“What we’ve seen is rather than taking 9-to-12 months for a system to move to the cloud, be accredited and then be available, we had one that started February of 2020, and they went operational in May of 2020,” he said during Federal News Network’s DoD Cloud Exchange. “So a three month turnaround timeline for adopting cloud. We’re dramatically cutting down the lead time to become a running capability. That’s critical to get feedback and improve on the resources or the capabilities that we’re fielding within the cloud today.”

While the new contract is mostly focused on application assessment and migration work, the Army also wants the option to use the new vehicle for long-term sustainment of applications once they’ve moved to the cloud, and to train government personnel on how to use the newly-migrated applications.

The Army hasn’t yet indicated a timeline for when it might issue a formal request for proposals, though officials did indicate they’re contemplating a contract of just one year with two additional one-year option periods. The winning bidder will also need to submit a credible plan to transition the work to a new vendor once the contract is over. —JS


Commission pushing to keep STEM foreign nationals in the U.S.

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence is pushing Congress to allow more foreign scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other technology-focused careerists to stay in the United States.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Commission Chairman Eric Schmidt and Vice Chairman Robert Work urged Congress to exempt STEM advanced-degree holders from green card numerical limits.

They attached proposed legislated text to their letter that would give lawful permanent residency to any foreign national who graduates from an accredited U.S. institution with a doctoral degree in STEM, is vetted and not deemed a national security threat and has a job offer in a STEM-related field.

“We, as a nation, should reverse the troubling trend of educating the world’s best and brightest only to let them return home to work for our competitors,” the chairmen wrote.

Jenilee Keefe Singer, co-director of legislative affairs for the commission, told Federal News Network that, “There is a lot of discussion on how the U.S. can best position itself in our emerging technology competition, and the Senate appears to be debating and considering ways to better compete.”

She said AI is one of the main areas Congress is considering.

“We have different green card caps for different countries around the world,” Brandon McKee, co-director of legislative affairs for the commission, said. “This is something that the Congress is charged with: either increasing that cap limit or decreasing. I think the Congress is realizing we have to take different measures on this front to move the ball forward. This is just one particular instance, where AI expertise around the world is incredibly thin. That competition is only increasing with each passing year. If we were to lift the limit that would be a huge attraction point for our U.S. private sector, industry, academia and government that would propel us forward in this competition.”

According to Code.org, the United States has more than 400,000 computer science jobs available and only about 71,000 qualified computer scientists are graduating annually to fill the openings.

“We don’t need to look too hard; the talent wants to come to the United States. Our nation’s education system remains one of the best in the world and is a magnet for foreign students seeking advanced education,” the commissioners wrote. “In fact, according to a 2020 Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology review, approximately 70%-90% of foreign STEM students in American Ph. D. programs, depending on their STEM field, wish to remain in the United States.”

Keefe Singer said the commission will continue to push the recommendations it made in its report until it is officially disbanded in October. — SM


Survey shows marginal improvements in Army housing conditions

The Army’s latest survey of how satisfied renters are with its on-base housing appears to show conditions are continuing to improve since the crisis of substandard living conditions on military installations leapt into public view two years ago.

The newest quarterly survey, conducted for the Army by the firm Jones Lang Lasalle, indicated renters are more satisfied with their housing than they were a year before. And although the improvements in scores are not enormous, the Army did improve in every single category the survey measured.

For instance, in the survey of 27 installations, an index of responses meant to show how satisfied soldiers and their families are with the quality of maintenance in their homes stood at 77.0 for the first quarter of this year — up from 72.8 in 2020. Likewise, “renewal intent” — which asks whether renters would move into the same community if they were assigned to the same base in the future — scored 68.8 — up more than 5 points from the year before.

But geographically, the responses were uneven. For this quarterly survey, far more questionnaires were sent to troops living overseas than to ones living in the continental U.S., and the survey administrators note that the Army still has work to do in Europe in particular.

There, the survey found that even though scores are also improving across-the-board, each of the “satisfaction indexes” for Army-owned or leased housing in Europe still fall into the “below average” range.

Among those, the Army’s bases in Italy fared the worst, with an overall satisfaction score of 61.6. For comparison, the highest score on the survey went to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, which received an overall score of 93.6. —JS


Lawmakers introduce legislation to rectify women’s uniform cost disparities

In February, the DoD Reporters’ Notebook reported on a Government Accountability Office report that showed women were paying more for clothing in the military. Now a bipartisan group of representatives is trying to do something about it.

Reps. Jackie Speier, (D-Calif.) Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill last week that would direct the secretaries of each military branch to take action to fix disparities in uniform costs.

All three of the lawmakers chair or are ranking members subcommittees and task forces related to the military or veterans.

The bill would require the military to implement the recommendations made by GAO by the end of 2022 and give women a one-time allowance making up for the disparities in cost up to 10 years.

“Requiring servicewomen to pay more for uniforms than servicemen pay is blatant gender discrimination, pure and simple. The military requires servicewomen to buy swimsuits, dress pumps and other items that are either not required for servicemen or that have less-expensive equivalents for men, and GAO found that servicewomen have been more affected by mandatory uniform changes that must be covered out of pocket by the servicewoman,” Speier said.

Every year the military gives enlisted service members an allowance to replace items initially issued to them. However, some items are excluded from that allowance. The Army does not provide funds for an all-weather coat, while the Marine Crops and Air Force do.

The gap between items excluded from reimbursement was at least double in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

The Army issues 15 pieces of clothing for both genders that are not reimbursable. However, the cost of eventually replacing those items for women is $642.16, while the cost for men is $382.19.

For the Navy, seven pieces of clothing are not eligible for reimbursement and total $353.39, while men have six pieces of clothing excluded totaling $181.57.

The bigger disparities are in the Marine Corps and Air Force. In the Marines, women have three pieces of clothing totaling $266.67 that are excluded, while men only have one at the cost of $89.45. The Air Force has six pieces of clothing for women that do not work with the allowance, which sums up to $411.52, while men have five pieces at $132.87.

GAO suggested four actions. One is to develop consistent criterial for determining what is or isn’t a uniquely military clothing item. GAO says DoD needs to have regular reviews on clothing replacement allowances to address out-of-pocket cost differences. DoD also needs to make sure the military services submit uniform changes for review with estimated costs. Finally, DoD needs to review military service uniform changes to look for disparities in cost among genders. — SM


Second stage of Chinese telecom ban producing unintended consequences

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.

Phase two of the U.S. government’s crackdown on untrusted Chinese hardware and software in its supply chain is only about six months old. But as some contracting experts both inside and outside of the government warned at the time, the latest implementation appears to be causing unintended consequences because of ambiguities over what it means to “use” equipment made by companies like ZTE and Huawei.

At issue is Section 889 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which sought to root out Chinese telecom equipment from the federal supply chain. The first section banned companies from selling that gear to the government. Part B, which the government implemented via an interim rule last August, prohibited prime contractors from using that equipment as a “substantial or essential” part of their own networks.

But at least some agencies have interpreted the rule to encompass the equipment that’s on the networks of their internet service providers and phone companies. Under that standard, it’s often impossible for contractors to self-certify that they’re in compliance — especially if they’re operating in countries where their only connectivity option is a telecom monopoly that’s known with certainty to use networks and equipment provided by Chinese firms, said Paul Foldi, the vice president for international development affairs at the Professional Services Council.

“It’s not just hardware — it’s also software, and it’s incredibly cumbersome” for companies working on Defense, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development contracts in countries like Egypt and Ethopia, Foldi said.

While the rule lets agencies issue waivers in situations where companies literally have no choice, the paperwork process is intensive, and the waivers are issued one contract at-a-time. Each waiver, so far, has been taking at least four-to-six weeks to process before a vendor can begin work.

“It’s not as though if I’m working in Egypt I get a waiver for all my contracts in that country,” Foldi said. “And the waivers are not similar [to one another] from what we’re hearing. They’re not public, so we can’t tell you for sure whether they’re similar, but we’ve heard anecdotally that they’re not similar.”

The rule does provide for a more blanket (but still temporary) waiver that could help with situations like the ones faced by contractors operating overseas. But those can only be issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“The last time I checked, ODNI is not staffed with contracting officers to go through all this paperwork,” Foldi said. “So in addition to the bottleneck in the agency, whether it’s the Department of Defense, State, USAID, you’ve got those issues that can take anywhere from four to six weeks at the earliest and then you’ve got to get through ODNI.” —JS


AFVentures brings its first report card home

The commercial-focused arm of the Air Force’s innovation-focused procurement shop awarded 2,300 small business awards totaling more than $700 million over the past two years.

AFVentures, which is an arm of the service’s larger AFWERX hub, released its annual report last week, and the program appears to have been busy. The organization spent a large chunk of its investment money in artificial intelligence, IT, aerospace, robotics and virtual reality, all areas where the Air Force is planning on taking its weapons of the future.

“AFVentures represents a counterbalance to Defense acquisition and procurement. We serve as the Department of the Air Force’s commercial investment group,” the authors of the report wrote. “Our mission: leverage commercial technology to deliver improved capabilities to the warfighter, faster. We create simple, easy to use pathways for commercial innovation to solve warfighter problems.”

The report is a first attempt at showing the key demographics of the organization to stakeholders since it was created.

AFVentures awards most of its contracts as Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase 1 awards, which are small bets on companies for short-term concepts. The $50,000 contracts allow companies to test feasibility of concepts and identify how helpful they can be to the Air Force.

The Air Force often likens the idea to sowing many seeds in hopes of striking gold on the next big technology.

A good chunk of those seeds seem to have flourished considering more than 500 of the contracts ended up going into Phase 2, where AFVentures gives companies $750,000 for prototyping, development, research and testing. Those contracts translated to $1.4 billion in non-SBIR contracts.

AFVentures did not detail how many projects reached phase 3, where awards usually combine SBIR funds with money from outside the SBIR program.

“At this point, AFVentures has not included this revenue data in current totals for Phase 3 commercialization impact because of the difficulty in isolating revenue specific to the Open Topic funded technology from unrelated company revenue,” the authors of the report wrote. “Nonetheless, AFVentures anticipates demonstrating yearly revenue growth by Open Topic portfolio companies.”

Last fall, AFWERX, which oversees AFVentures, was promoted to a more prominent role in the Air Force.

“Given the daunting challenges we face against peer competitors, the operative question is: ‘What are we doing to tip the scales?’” then-Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper wrote a Sept. 1 memo. “One answer is relaunching AFWERX with expanded authority. “With so much of the battlefield — over 80% — in commercial markets having a frontline organization bridge back to our PEOs, research labs and major commands can lower our fence line, multiply our partnerships and provide a plain-speaking menu for defense work where the first course isn’t acronym soup.”

The memo breaks AFWERX into three different branches: AFVentures, Spark and Prime.

The Spark branch is focused on empowering innovation at the operational edge, while the Prime branch will leverage other unique government resources by working with other agencies, programs and emerging markets. The Air Force’s Agility Prime program, which is trying to develop flying cars, falls under this branch. — SM


Pentagon slicing away at data centers, but not everything can move to the cloud

The Defense Department is on track to reduce its total number of government-owned data centers to less than 10 percent of what it had when the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative first began in 2010, according to the department’s top IT official.

John Sherman, the acting DoD chief information officer said the military services and Defense agencies will reduce their total number of data centers to about 250 “in the next few years.” The department had more than 3,000 in 2010, and still owns about 1,500, he said.

A fair chunk of those closures have been because of migrations to the cloud, with many more to come. But Sherman said the analytical work the department has done in the process of optimizing its data hosting environments has led officials to conclude there are many applications that simply don’t make sense to move to the cloud.

Those types of applications and systems will continue to reside in government-owned facilities, such as the Defense Information Systems Agency’s capacity services offerings, until they’re finally retired.

“[We’ve looked] at some of our legacy systems and understand the juice isn’t worth the squeeze if something’s going to sunset, or you just cannot refactor it in a way that when you put it into the cloud you’re getting some kind of benefit,” he said during a virtual event hosted by Meritalk. “One of my colleagues calls DISA [capacity services] the ‘purgatory data center.’ These are where we’ve done a deliberative analysis of the systems, and they’re just not going to the cloud. And that’s a good decision – you’ve done the due diligence. And then you can really focus on how you’re going to use the cloud.”

In other cases, migrating a system to the cloud may deliver some cost savings, but the analysis shows they won’t amount to meaningful savings for several more years. In those instances, migration might still make sense. But more than that, Sherman said, getting out of the data center business improves DoD’s cybersecurity.

“Yes, we’re saving money, but also we’re not having to patch ourselves, or worry about HVAC and industrial control systems at the data center,” he said. “We are leveraging industry partners, and in the United States, we’ve got the best in the world I would argue. Not just with the big cloud service providers, but some of the others that are providing some of the integrating services and so on to make this happen.” —JS


Army emergency organization offering grants for childcare

Army Emergency Relief is expanding the financial assistance services it offers soldiers to encompass childcare, babysitting, remote-learning and other ways to take care of their children.

The organization will now offer 100% no-pay-back grants to Army families for those costs, as well as continuing to offer zero interest loans and grants for food, lodging, emergency travel, natural disasters, vehicle costs and many other options.

“We don’t yet know specifics on how many Army families will make use of these childcare and remote learning benefits,” Matthew Howland, a spokesperson for AER told Federal News Network. “However, we do know that the past year has been disruptive and challenging for our military families, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are military families out there who need help, and so we stand ready to support them by providing these programs.”

AER offers help to about 40,000 Army families and gives out around $70 million in grants a year.

Childcare is increasingly becoming a top issue for military families, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 shutdown many childcare facilities which contributed to financial and logistical hardship for Army families,” Howland said. “Anything that distracts the service member from focusing on their mission jeopardizes soldier and unit readiness. In some cases, shortages or waiting lists happen, particularly in high-cost-of-living areas. Also, military families move more frequently than the average American family, which means finding long-term childcare options can be difficult. This can cause military families to have to go out of pocket to make their own temporary childcare arrangements. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges.”

The childcare benefit AER is offering has no cap. The remote education benefit stops at $2,000 per year for K-12 and $3,000 for undergrad.

A list of covered expenses include costs for before/after school care, childcare facilities, nursery schools, and private sitters. For homeschool/remote learning assistance, costs involve tutoring, educational software, extended WiFi, computers, tablets, and more, for students from Pre-K through undergraduate. — SM


Army reinforces multi-domain strategy for future

The Army is reinforcing its need to encompass space, cyber, air and other domains into the strategy to rebuff rising powers like China and Russia within the next 15 years.

The strategy, dubbed Army Multi-Domain Transformation, will help the Army with the range, speed and convergence of cutting-edge technologies to provide future decision dominance and overmatch to win the next fight, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.

“It builds upon what has already been done by Army Forces Command and this was in concert with Army Futures Command working through the attributes” Col. Jason Charland, military deputy for the Army’s management office-strategy, plans and policy, said during a Friday call with reporters. “It brings a lot of the different ideas together. It’s focused out towards 2035.”

The Army plans to publish a posture statement in the near future to explain what it is specifically doing to improve multi-domain operations.

The strategy is based around “Four C’s”: competition, change, crisis, and conflict.

For the competition aspect, the Army wants to work with its international partners to expand the land power network and develop new capabilities. For crisis, the service wants to maintain contact in all domains, hold adversary interests at risk and impost costs on malign actions against the United States. Finally, in conflict, the Army wants to expand the battle space and create overmatch.

The strategy will involve the use of new Army units like the recently formed multi-domain task force.

The task forces are focused on defeating an enemy’s anti-access/area denial capabilities to allow the military to operate in hostile environments.

The Army plans to have three of these task forces by next year.

The first task force originally had a field artillery brigade as its core that merged with an intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space element.

“We face increased physical and virtual standoff through layered and integrated networks, where adversaries leverage all instruments of national power to blur the lines between competition and conflict, altering international norms to the detriment of the international community,”  Brig. Gen. Jim Isenhower, the task force commander said. — SM

 


Navy and Marine Corps make drones a top priority

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 Navy and Marine Corps are making a serious effort to more heavily incorporate drones into the way the services do business.

The services released an Unmanned Campaign Plan last week that will advance manned-unmanned teaming in naval and joint missions and build a digital infrastructure that integrates drones at speed and scale.

“It is imperative that we employ new and different strategies to win the future fight,” the authors of the plan wrote. “Unmanned concepts allow us to rewrite the narrative on traditional warfare. Through a capabilities-based approach we can build a future where unmanned systems are at the front lines of our competitive advantage.”

The plan comes with points of action that empowers leaders to push for more drone integration. It calls for budgets that bring in unmanned systems across the force; alignment of strategic priorities through studies, exercises and experiments, bringing in personnel to field and sustain autonomous operations and addressing policies and laws that may hinder operations.

The Navy and Marine Corps see areas of opportunity for drones in a handful of areas. One is routine areas like mine countermeasures to protect assess and another is using drones to collect intelligence. The services see drones as a way to increase capacity without as much cost as manned systems and as an opportunity to design new systems for specific needs.

The services are trying to change the narrative around drones as funding a capability rather than funding an independent platform.

To do that the Navy and Marine Corps are planning on investing in drones from a variety of angles, including commercial options and investing in a wide industrial base.

“Maintaining the department’s technological advantage will require cultural changes across the ecosystem, innovative investment strategies, and thoughtful consideration of research protection across the national security innovation base,” the authors wrote. “Successful execution of this campaign requires that the Navy and Marine Corps collaborate with and inform industry and academic partners to develop technologies, concepts, and approaches with naval unique needs in mind.”

The plan says the services will explore opportunities like ocean of things – a program seeks to enable persistent maritime situational awareness through a distributed sensor network over large ocean areas by deploying thousands of small, low-cost floats that transmit data via satellite for storage and real-time analysis.

Other areas of exploration include ships that can operate for long periods of time without humans, drones that are able to swarm enemies and sea trains, which are a system of connected vessels.

The House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee held a hearing on Naval unmanned systems last week.

During the hearing, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said she found the plan short on details and full of platitudes.

Navy leadership reinforced the need for a hybrid force.

“Unmanned systems have and will continue to have be a key enabler of our distributed force lethal scalable connected and cost effective,” said acting Assistant Navy Secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition Jay Stefany. “That is why the Navy is developing a range of unmanned systems to augment our traditional forces and improve in relevant platforms. The hybrid force of the future will provide the Navy and Marine Corps team, the necessary capabilities and capacity to operate in day to day competition, as well as the high-end fight, allowing us to maintain the advantage over our adversaries.” — SM


A tale of two working capital funds

A little bit of cash can go a long way, especially during a global pandemic, and its showing as the military services are reporting to Congress about the health of their organic industrial base.

Both the Navy and the Air Force took $475 million each from the CARES Act and the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The Army, on the other hand, did not and it’s now paying the price.

Army Lt. Gen. Duane Gamble, deputy chief of staff for logistics, says he has “significant concerns” about the Army’s Working Capital Fund and expects it will need a deposit of $600 million to $900 million later this year.

“We honestly didn’t think we needed a cash infusion into the working capital fund [back in March] to offset health and safety leave and the increased cost of health and safety leave as others worked longer hours and overtime to keep production running,” Gamble told the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Friday.

Gamble said the Army is now “pulling levers” to restore cash to the fund. The money will come from inside the Army and the Defense Department.

“There’s almost no doubt in our mind that in the next six to eight months we will need a cash infusion to keep the Army Working Capital Fund solvent to the level where it can continue to produce the readiness it produces today,” Gamble said. “We’re not in bad shape. We are concerned and we’re watching closely.”

The military operates a handful of working capital funds to procure and provide materiel and commercial products and services to its forces. The fund works as a self-supported entity to fund business-like activities like buying parts, maintaining equipment, research and paying for certain personnel functions.

“These funds are designed to break even over the long term through fees charged for goods and services provided,” a Congressional Research Service report states. “Working capital funds offer benefits and flexibility to DoD procurement and disposal of materiel.”

While the Army is struggling, the Navy is in a completely different situation after taking the funds from the CARES Act.

In May, the Navy said it was reducing workforce and output temporarily to deal with COVID-19.

“We were able to exceed production requirements for aircraft and components came within 1% on engines,” Vice Adm. Dean Peters, commander of Naval Air Systems, said. “This was done while adding capabilities at the F-5 heavy line and while expanding capacity, such as on our T-6 line. Financially, we exceeded revenue targets for 2020 and made a very positive contribution to the Navy Working Capital Fund. Our allocation of CARES funding that associated with COVID-19 related costs was critical.” — SM


IG: Pentagon disregarded auditors, overpaid contractors by as much as $97M

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 Pentagon may have overpaid two of its biggest contractors by nearly $100 million because contract administrators failed to heed to DoD’s own auditors’ warnings about potentially-improper reimbursement claims, according to a new review by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

The IG looked at just a sample of 30 reports the Defense Contract Audit Agency completed between 2016 and 2019 to determine how the Defense Contract Management Agency was responding when DCAA found problems. In 14 of those cases, the review found DCMA appears to have violated the Federal Acquisition Regulation, including by dismissing DCAA’s concerns without adequately documenting the reasons.

In eight specific cases, the inspector general’s office found DCAA had flagged the contractors’ requests for reimbursement as unallowable, but DCMA allowed the reimbursements anyway. Those questioned payments totaled $97 million.

In one example the IG described in a new report, DCAA auditors noted a contractor had improperly charged the government $6 million for a supplemental retirement plan for company executives. Those costs weren’t allowable, DCAA said, because they were tied to salaries above and beyond the caps in federal law on contractor compensation.

The same lead DCMA contracting officer allowed $24 million in costs that DCAA and the IG found were unallowable.

“The remaining $24 million in questioned costs included various types of costs for which the [corporate administrative contracting officer] did not adequately explain why he disagreed with the DCAA,” according to the report. “In most instances, the CACO accepted the contractor claimed costs that were billed to the Government at a higher amount than the amounts outlined in the contract or the CACO accepted the costs based on the CACO’s analysis that was not documented in the negotiation file.”

The inspector general didn’t identify the two contractors involved in the report, saying that DCAA’s audit findings are “pre-decisional” and negotiations over repayment are still underway.

DCMA has agreed to review several of the cases the IG cited in the report and also provide more training to its supervisors.

“DCMA believes it has additional documentation in its files to support many of these determinations,” the agency wrote in response to a draft version of the report. “DCMA is currently reviewing its files for this documentation. To the extent DCMA cannot find adequate information in its files to justify the contracting officer determinations, DCMA concurs with the recommendations.”

Specifically, the agency said it would reopen the files DCAA and the IG questioned and make new determinations about whether the costs were allowable, including by consulting with the agency’s legal counsel by the end of June.

It’s not the first time the IG has flagged a possible disconnect between DCAA’s audit work and how DCMA responds to those findings.

In a Jan. 2020 report, the office found that DCAA had recommended penalties for contractors who’d claimed a collective $154 million in unallowable costs, but DCMA decided against penalties on about 28% of those claims, again, without adequately documenting its reasons.

And in 2019, the IG reported DCMA had reimbursed contractors for $22.5 million in executive compensation, even though DCAA had found those costs to be unallowable. There, too, the inspector general found DCMA’s rationale for overruling the auditors was insufficient. —JS


Air Force adding new transparency to stratification system

The Air Force is trying to be more transparent in how it assesses its officers as the service continues to update its talent management system to move away from an industrialized model.

Starting in April, the service will follow strict rubrics for how officers can be stratified against their peers. Officer stratification is a system unique to the Air Force, it functions much like class rank in a school, except previously officers could be pitted against basically anyone.

Before the new guidance, an officer could be stratified against multiple groups, including enlisted personnel. That could make their “ranking” vary widely and effect future promotions.

Now the service is limiting who officers can be ranked against to the more even playing fields of grade, command position and duty position. The change allows for a more apples-to-apples comparison of individuals.

For example, if an officer is stratified by duty position they will be competing against other people with the same job. That may include some civilians, who do the same job and are not stratified, but won’t put them against someone who has nothing to do with that position.

“We owe our officers a clear understanding of their performance relative to their peers. Airmen need and deserve feedback on their strengths and weaknesses and on the skills they may need to improve to truly maximize their capability,” said Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. “This interim stratification guidance assists with this goal ensuring a standardized practice across the Air Force. It also provides us with a bridge and culture transformation tool as we work toward a new officer evaluation system focused on increased transparency, more direct feedback, and increased performance delineation to support various talent management decisions.”

Going forward, “second lieutenant,” “company grade officer” and “field grade officer” stratifications will not exist. Officers also may not be stratified based on additional duty positions.

Critics of the stratification system say the rankings can be subjective because they are based on how a commanding officers compares airmen. Another critique is that some airmen will get a higher stratification because they may need it over a harder working officer to ensure they get promoted. Some also say that the system makes airmen more focused on getting a better rank, and therefore the possibility of an early promotion, over the actual mission. — SM


Smith wants Congress to stop obsessing over the Defense budget topline

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) needs to get a ball of yarn and some warm milk out for the next year, because he’s going to be spending a lot of time herding cats around the Defense budget.

Smith — whose wry humor has brought mentions of sharks with laser beams and other comparisons about the sometimes-absurd world of Defense acquisition to the Congressional halls — is entering his second term leading the committee.

Last year, he had the conundrum of spending more money than expected, authorizing nearly $750 billion for the military’s coffers after the Trump administration unexpectedly decided to lobby for more Defense funding than the $733 billion many lawmakers rallied around.

This year, Smith is going to have to convince his more hawkish colleagues that after four straight years of Defense budget increases, the 2022 budget should be flat.

“A huge pitch that I’m going make this year is to not obsess about that top line number,” Smith told Federal News Network. “Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed and I both know that having the Biden administration take a flat budget is where we are at and I think we can make that work.”

Opposition to that frame of thought is already in the works, though. House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), along with seven other committee lawmakers sent a letter to President Joe Biden last week lobbying for a 3% to 5% increase in the budget.

“The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission recommended an annual 3% to 5% increase above the rate of inflation in the base defense budget to ‘meet the ends the National Defense Strategy establishes,’” they wrote. “Accordingly, we believe an increase of 3% to 5% above inflation in the base defense budget is a prudent amount that will enable the military to stay ahead of evolving threats from our adversaries.”

On the left, Smith will be balancing the progressive side of the Democratic Party as some lawmakers are calling for a cut of up to 10% in the Defense budget. Those progressives are advocating using that money for things like grants for schools and hospitals and building infrastructure.

To make his case, Smith is trying to show that money doesn’t always translate to results.

“I hope people realize that the sheer amount of money you spend doesn’t necessarily make you safe,” he said. “How much money have we spent on the F-35 to not get what we paid for? How much did we spend on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle to just watch it go up and smoke?”

Smith set up a Future of Defense Task Force last year, which focused partly on how the Defense Department can spend its money better.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Gentlemen, we’re out of money, now we have to think.’ That is the culture that I really want to try to get out there,” Smith said.

Outside of that high-wire act, Smith said he will continue putting pressure on DoD to change its culture.

“They need to change the way they treat their personnel in such a way that there is less sexual harassment, less white supremacy,” Smith said. “How can we create an atmosphere where we’re actually protecting our personnel? What cultural shifts are necessary to make that happen?”

Smith joined Reed in saying that he, too, is open to taking prosecutorial jurisdiction of sexual assaults out of the chain of command.

The chairman also wants to keep his foot on the pedal of acquisition change.

“I think the culture at the Pentagon right now is very process oriented — fill out the proper paperwork, check the proper box, get approval from these people — then we’re good,” Smith said. “I want to see that culture shift to one that is goal-oriented, what are we trying to accomplish?”

Smith wants the military to promote more creativity while keeping DoD accountable on carrying out the changes to Defense acquisition that Congress mandated. Part of doing that is moving away from parochial interests in how Congress allocates money to DoD and the Pentagon’s emphasis on large weapons systems, he said. — SM


Austin orders new steps to curb sexual assault while panel studies the problem

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.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a series of short-and-medium term steps meant to curb sexual assault and harassment, a problem he described in a memorandum to DoD leaders on Friday as “persistent and corrosive” across the military services.

Some of the department’s newest responses are yet to be determined, and they’ll be based on the recommendations of a previously-announced 90-day commission, which also began taking shape on Friday. But in the meantime, the secretary is ordering several interim measures to fight the problem.

For one, each of the services will need to create new workforces dedicated to violence prevention. The memo, which terms the new cadre a “violence prevention community of practice,” offers no specifics on how large the workforce should be, but mandates that at least half of it be trained by the end of this calendar year, with the full workforce trained by the end of June 2022.

“The Secretaries of the military departments will identify and resource personnel whose duties are dedicated to the prevention of interpersonal violence and self-harm,” Austin wrote, while also ordering each department to deliver a report by the end of this fiscal year “describing the constellation and distribution of their prevention workforce, planned resourcing and sustainment, and required staffing changes at all levels.”

But it’s possible that the new workforce will be concentrated on installations and in units where sexual assault and harassment happen at above-average rates — and Austin wants to know which ones those are.

Friday’s directive also orders the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness to send him a report on “high risk” installations “as soon as feasible.” After that, Austin wants to see quarterly command climate survey data from each of those installations, including which ones are “of greatest concern” and which are “showing promise.”

Meanwhile, Austin also wants answers on what the services are doing to comply with the initiatives DoD and Congress have already ordered in recent years to stop sexual assault and harassment. Each of the services has 120 days to report back on their own compliance with existing policies and what they’re going to do to fix any gaps they’ve found.

Also on Friday, the secretary named Lynn Rosenthal, a former White House advisor on violence against women, to lead DoD’s 90 day Independent Review Commission (IRC) on sexual assault and harassment. The Pentagon is expected to sign a formal charter standing up the panel and assigning DoD staff to support it by the end of this week.

The IRC will have three main lines of effort: “Accountability,” “Prevention,” and “Climate and Culture.”

The “accountability” task is meant to deal mainly with how DoD investigates and prosecutes sexual offenses via the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And based on the language of Austin’s tasking, the secretary does not appear inclined at the moment to remove those offenses from the UCMJ system.

Instead, the memo tells the IRC they should look for ways to improve the handling of sexual assault under the UCMJ, as well as the “feasibility, opportunities, and risks from changes to the commander’s role in prosecution.”

But Rosenthal said all options, including moving sexual offenses outside the chain of command, would be on the table.

“I think that accountability is critical. I also believe that these pillars intersect with each other, so without a clear pathway for accountability, the work we want to do on prevention will be completely undermined. And by the same token, we could address that one issue of the chain of command, and if we don’t do all the other things, that’s not going to work either,” she told reporters Friday. “We’re going to look with an open mind and diverse views on this question of the chain of command.” —JS


Congress may take sexual assault prosecution out of chain of command

Sexual assault was once again a banner issue in the military this past year, and it may finally lead to changes in how the problem is handled in the chain of command.

Two of the top lawmakers overseeing military personnel say they are seriously considering using an independent prosecutor to handle sex crimes rather than keeping them in the chain of command.

“Taking sexual assault prosecutions out of the chain of command will be considered by the committee,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. “That has been a proposal going back many, many years. I hope and I expect that in this commission that the defense secretary will ask that issue be raised. I think the idea of separation is once again on the table. We’ll move forward with the notion that, you know, it has to be justified and lead to success.”

House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told Federal News Network she fully supports changing how sexual assault is prosecuted in the services.

Speier worked on a provision in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would have made the change, however, it did not make it into the final bill.

The most recent numbers show a 3% increase in reported sexual assaults from 2018 to 2019, totaling more than 6,200 incidents. DoD estimates that 40% of assaults aren’t even reported, however.

“Sexual assault is antithetical to the American military. We’re going to be very serious about this,” Reed said.

Protect Our Defenders President Don Christensen told Federal News Network last year how the change in prosecutions would work.

“In the regular justice system a victim would go to the police, the police would investigate, that investigation would be turned over to a prosecutor, and they would make the decision based on the laws and facts whether or not to pursue that case,” he said.

In the military, the service does the investigation.

“The investigation is turned over to a commander who knows the accused,” Christensen said. “The commander makes the decision whether or not to go forward. Then the higher-up commander will make the decision if it goes to trial. None of those commanders are attorneys. They might be a pilot, an artillery officer or a surface warfare officer and they are making very complex legal decisions.” — SM


Women troops paying more out-of-pocket for military-related clothing, study says

A new report from the government’s watchdog says there’s another barrier for women serving in the military at a time when the Defense Department is trying to recruit and retain more females: Uniform cost.

The Government Accountability Office study found that women are paying extra fees based on their sex to the tune of hundreds of dollars.

Every year the military gives enlisted service members an allowance to replace items initially issued to them. However, some items are excluded from that allowance. The Army does not provide funds for an all-weather coat, while the Marine Crops and Air Force do.

“We found these differences in replacement allowances can also contribute to differences in out-of-pocket costs by service and gender for enlisted service members,” the authors of the GAO report state.

The gap between items excluded from reimbursement was at least double in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

The Army issues 15 pieces of clothing for both genders that are not reimbursable. However, the cost of eventually replacing those items for women is $642.16, while the cost for men is $382.19.

For the Navy, seven pieces of clothing are not eligible for reimbursement and total $353.39, while men have six pieces of clothing excluded totaling $181.57.

The bigger disparities are in the Marine Corps and Air Force. In the Marines, women have three pieces of clothing totaling $266.67 that are excluded, while men only have one at the cost of $89.45. The Air Force has six pieces of clothing for women that do not work with the allowance, which sums up to $411.52, while men have five pieces at $132.87.

“The varying reimbursement rates across the services and the lower reimbursement rates for female enlisted service members were due, in part, to determinations by the services as to which items are not uniquely military,” the authors wrote. “Of the initial provision of clothing items, female enlisted service members may be provided with a one-time cash allowance to purchase items such as underwear, bras, and stockings. This allowance on average ranged from about $125 to $207 across the services from fiscal year 2015 through fiscal year 2020. However, female service members do not subsequently receive an annual replacement allowance for those items and, after the initial cash allowance has been expended, they would pay out-of-pocket to replace them because the services have determined these items are not uniquely military.”

Other items, which are required by the military, but do not get reimbursed, include handbags, swimsuits and dress pumps.

There are a few items like underwear, undershirts and athletic socks, which fall under the same rules for men.

“The lack of consistent criteria across DoD for determining what items may be excluded from the services’ calculations of their standard cash clothing replacement allowances and the resulting variances in out-of-pocket costs for enlisted service members may result in inequitable cash allowances for uniform costs by service and gender,” the GAO analysts wrote.

GAO also found that the military services made 18 uniform changes in the past decade that have disproportionately increased out-of-pocket spending for women. For example, the Navy changed its women’s hat to more closely resemble the men’s hat.

Service members must use their allowance to pay for uniform changes.

GAO is suggesting four actions. One is developing consistent criterial for determining what is or isn’t a uniquely military clothing item. GAO says DoD needs to have regular reviews on clothing replacement allowances to address out-of-pocket cost differences. DoD also needs to make sure the military services submit uniform changes for review with estimated costs. Finally, DoD needs to review military service uniform changes to look for disparities in cost among genders. — SM


Congress to probe how military bases fared during paralyzing winter storms

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.

Ice storm renews Congressional push to make military bases energy independent

In his second term holding the gavel of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) is planning an active year addressing how the military will respond to climate change, continuing oversight of military housing and investigating the military prescription drug supply chain.

In an interview with Federal News Network, Garamendi said one of his first actions this year will be to look into military installations’ response to the ice storm in Texas and surrounding states.

“We are continuing to require that the bases become energy resilient, and in some cases energy independent, that they not depend upon the grid,” he said. “This week’s task is to assess what happened on the bases in Texas. It will be a case study on resiliency and we’ll be reviewing that keeping in mind that we have already written law that the bases need to be paying attention to resiliency.”

Garamendi said he plans on holding a hearing on the issue, but has not yet scheduled it considering the storm cleanup is still ongoing.

Climate change and the resulting extreme weather has become a perennial issue for Defense Department properties.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael completely destroyed Air Force Base Tyndall in Florida. A report sent to Congress by DoD found 53 of 79 critical bases are vulnerable to recurrent flooding and 60 of those installations will face that threat in the next 20 years. Additionally, 43 of the 79 bases are currently susceptible to drought and 48 will be in the next 20 years. Wildfires also pose a threat; 36 bases on the list are currently at risk, while 43 will be over the next two decades.

It’s not only reactive hearings that Garamendi wants to pursue in regard to climate change, though.

The chairman will continue to legislatively push DoD away from fossil fuels during his tenure.

“As the single largest consumer in America of fossil fuels, I wanted the military to pay attention to climate change and to go green,” Garamendi said. “We wrote into the current and previous defense authorization acts requirements that the military undertake initial steps to do that and to recognize the effect of climate change and other natural hazards on the military bases.”

The subcommittee will use the upcoming NDAA to build resiliency into bases by requiring architectural hedges against future disasters.

Garamendi also wants civilian vehicles owned by bases to go the way of Ford and General Motors and move to all electric.

“It may be a small thing, but it is a message not just to the military, but it’s a message to America that we don’t need to consume fossil fuels. There are other options available to us,” he said. — SM


Military housing also on readiness subcommittee’s agenda

Substandard housing, which plagued DoD personnel and came to light in the past two years, falls under the Readiness Subcommittee’s purview.

Privatized military housing and public military housing continue to be inadequate for habitation on some bases. The issue was first brought to light in 2019, when military families told Congress about homes with lead paint, mold, mice and other inadequate living conditions.

Despite pledges from companies and DoD plans to spend an additional $120 million a year on the issue, some families are still not getting the results they need.

“There’s going to be some hand slapping going on here for the contractors,” Garamendi said. “By hand slapping, I do not mean clapping. Quite the opposite. We want the tenant bill of rights done so that there’s clarity as to the responsibility of the privatized housing companies and some of the opportunities and the responsibilities for the tenants.”

Garamendi said the contractors have been holding up some of the provisions of the bill of rights, specifically the ones that have the most teeth.

The missing rights are access to the maintenance history of a house, a process for dispute resolution and the withholding of rent until disputes are resolved.

Garamendi said he wants more government responsibility as well.

“One of the problems we discovered at the outset of this was that the base commanders were not paying attention,” he said. “They said that it had to do with sequestration and money not being available. I disagreed and said, ‘No, the problem is the base commanders simply were not paying attention, they found other things to worry about or to think about.’ Written into the law is a requirement that there be sufficient personnel on every base with a specific responsibility of monitoring the base housing and providing an opportunity for candidates to express their concerns. We’ll want to make sure that that is actually happening.” — SM


Major moves to get DoD acquisition workforce ‘back to basics’

The Defense Department took a big step forward in its plans to overhaul the way it trains and develops its acquisition workforce last week, rolling out a new competency model and certification requirements for its more than 32,000 contracting professionals.

It’s part of a broader initiative the Pentagon calls “Back to Basics,” which the department first announced last September. Fundamentally, the idea is to cut back on the amount of one-size-fits all training that acquisition professionals have to take to get an initial certification in their career field, but supplement it with more specialized “just in time” training that’s relevant to the actual problems they’re working on throughout their careers.

A memo signed last week by John Tenaglia, the department’s principal director for pricing and contracting, lays out how the program will work for the contracting career field, which makes about almost one-fifth of DoD’s total acquisition workforce of 183,000 military and civilian employees. Under the new “streamlined” program, new contracting professionals will only need to take four courses, totaling 200 hours, to get their initial certifications.

The department said the new requirements are based on training developed by the National Contract Management Association, and will replace the three-tiered system that currently requires people to go through up to 650 hours of training.

“The contracting competency model represents a set of competencies that are foundational and common among the contracting workforce, regardless of the organization or mission area, and will form the basis of the contracting training program,” Tenaglia wrote. “In addition to achieving certification in contracting, a workforce member may earn credentials and complete specialty training relevant to the needs of their current job assignment, and will engage in continuous learning throughout their career.”

As part of the overhaul, DoD is absorbing acquisition professionals who’d previously been dubbed “purchasing and property” experts into the contracting workforce. Anyone who’s already earned certification under the contracting or purchasing programs will get to keep it – veteran acquisition professionals won’t have to start from scratch.

DoD plans to reorganize the training pipelines for the rest of its acquisition workforce by the end of October, and there will be other consolidations and simplifications along the same lines.

As of now, there are 14 distinct “functional areas” that are considered part of the acquisition workforce. Under the reimagined structure, there will be just six: Program management, contracting, life cycle logistics, engineering and technical management, test and evaluation, and cost estimating.

In some cases — as with contracting and purchasing — the department is simply consolidating some of the legacy competency definitions into one. But in others, it’s decided there are some skillsets that aren’t really part of the acquisition workforce.

Auditing, for example, will move outside the acquisition workforce training model, and be led by the Defense Contract Audit Institute, the Defense Contract Audit Agency’s training arm. Meanwhile, acquisition attorneys and facilities engineers will move to a more decentralized model where their training is led by the military services they work for.

Once it’s all said and done, the Pentagon said Back to Basics will have been the biggest change to its acquisition workforce since the early 1990s, when DoD first stood up the Defense Acquisition University, formalizing and centralizing its training programs in response to the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act.

“Our current three-level certification requires extensive training time — most of it early in a professional’s career — to achieve certification. The certification program is highly structured and overly comprehensive, making it inflexible and inefficient. Too often, training is provided to the wrong people, or at the wrong time,” Al Shaffer, then the Pentagon’s number-two acquisition official wrote shortly after the program’s initial announcement. “In this new environment, both individuals and supervisors will have increased responsibility for managing training and development opportunities. This will require greater attention to your personal career goals and growth, while also focusing on the needs of your organization.” —JS


Securing the military’s drug supply chain

Last year, in conjunction with Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Garamendi added a provision to the NDAA that required DoD to look into how prescription drugs used by service members are manufactured.

The concern was that many generic drugs were coming from Chinese manufacturers and could be tampered with.

In response, DoD and the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a more than $60 million contract to develop a domestic production capability for critical active pharmaceutical ingredients. Another $20 million contract was awarded to develop a domestic production capability for critical active pharmaceutical ingredients.

That’s not the end of the story though. Brig. Gen. Dr. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon general, said in a hearing last week that DoD is still assessing the issue.

“We looked at the operational medications that we rely on and are deployed assemblages, and identified which ones rely on ingredients from other countries,” Friedrichs said. “We are working with the Food and Drug Administration to obtain ingredients for those where we’ve not been able to identify the source of origin. The next step is to understand fully through the global supply chain, where all of the ingredients come from, and ensure that pharmaceutical companies are able to share that information with us so that we can then identify what risks there is to those medications in our deployable assemblages.” — SM


Influx of ideas comes to 18th Airborne, crowdsourcing ways to combat sexual assault and harassment

Last week the Notebook reported on the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps crowdsourcing ideas from its soldiers to improve sexual assault and harassment prevention and response. Now the proposals are submitted and seven soldiers will present their visions to a panel for implementation across the corps.

“Originally, only two soldiers with the most impactful concepts were slated to compete,” a release from the corps states. “The volume of viable concepts submitted, however, precipitated the need to expand the number of presenters.”

The ideas — which range from having the best film schools revamp training videos to using virtual reality help soldiers understand what it’s like to be harassed — will be presented Shark Tank-style to leaders within the corps.

“Not only did responses come in from corps soldiers, but they also came in from soldiers assigned to units unaffiliated with the corps,” the release states. “Concepts ranged from policy recommendations to incorporating new technology to bring about positive change within the SHARP program.”

The finalists are:

  • 2nd Lt. Hannah Alderete, assigned to 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, recommended creating compelling SHARP training by asking students at the top three to five U.S. film schools to compete to produce the best content. Alderete drew on her experience as a freshman mentor at Claremont McKenna College in California to develop a program whereby the nation’s top five film schools compete to create a compelling, emotional scenario-based 30-minute video that will replace power point SHARP training.
  • Jillian Collins, assigned to 3rd Infantry Division, recommended more command group involvement in SHARP training, and the implementation of systems that would allow commanders to provide greater support to victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
  • Staff Sgt. Shameka Dudley, assigned to 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, recommended creating virtual reality SHARP training during which soldiers would be “virtually” put in the place of individuals who are being sexually harassed so they witness what other soldiers may see or go through daily. Dudley drew on the vast body of research indicating that virtual reality training can build empathy.
  • 1st Lt. Alexandra Elison, assigned to XVIII Airborne Corps, recommended a three-tiered revamp to the current SHARP program that includes giving soldiers the option to report cases to SHARP representatives outside of their units, degrading the opportunity for Soldiers to use SHARP as a manipulation tool, and providing military investigators with more resources.
  • Christopher Higgins, assigned to 101st Airborne Division, recommended the development of a single Army/DoD-wide digital application to host all programs of record, installation services offered, and relevant unit information, which would integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning to augment data.
  • Taylor Knueven, assigned to 101st Airborne Division, recommended molding the SHARP program into something meaningful that encourages peer-on-peer pressure to do the right thing and features transparency by presenting statistics on SHARP-related incidents within units.
  • Col. Scott Stephens, a battalion commander assigned to 3rd Infantry Division, recommended creating “Dragon Guardian,” a program focused on educating and empowering junior leaders and creating “SHARP Ambassadors;” and implementing a formal leader certification process. Stephens is the co-author of the 2020 book “Athena Thriving” on the subject of combatting sexual harassment and discrimination in the Army. His proposal is supported by a deep body of academic and scientific research.

Corps Commanding General Lt. Gen. Erik Kurilla decided to prioritize sexual assault as a crowdsourced challenge after hearing from a handful of soldiers around base who had thought deeply about the issue.

“You have tons of ideas that are often locked down at the lowest level that are trapped by this Army hierarchy of grade rank and experience, and just bureaucracy,” said Capt. Annie Blank, aide-de-camp to the corps’ deputy commanding general said. “If we can flip this paradigm where we can empower and give a voice to all those ideas, but with the backing of the rank of someone like Lt. Gen. Kurilla, we might be actually be able to produce something innovative and implement it at like a wide breadth across a corps.”

A winner will be chosen on Feb. 22. — SM

 


Oversight offices see glimmers of progress in DoD, VA electronic health records

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.

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Both departments are fixing problems in early EHR rollouts, but years of work remains

The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs still have a very long way to go before they achieve the long-sought objective of a fully integrated electronic health record infrastructure. But a pair of recently released oversight reports show that the multibillion dollar EHR programs, both of which had rocky starts, have made meaningful progress in just the past year.

The Department of Veterans Affairs delayed its initial rollout of the Cerner Millenium EHR suite twice last year — once to allow for more training, and then because of COVID-19. But the department managed to complete its first deployment, in Spokane, Washington, in October.

But before that, VA spent the prior four months squashing bugs that could have derailed that deployment. According to a Government Accountability Office report released late last week, tests as of June 2020 showed VA’s Cerner implementation had 530 “high severity” findings and 29 “critical” ones. By the time of the October deployment, it was down to zero critical issues and 55 high severity findings. And VA had found acceptable workarounds for 47 of them.

GAO cautioned that VA is sure to find more problems as it conducts more testing and deploys the EHR to its next site, the larger Puget Sound medical center in Seattle sometime between July and September of this year. But the initial results are encouraging. The watchdog did say, however, that the department should put any more deployments on hold until all those high severity findings are resolved.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), which has been harshly critical of DoD’s version of the EHR, also found a few positive things to say in this year’s annual report.

The first round of operational tests on the system, in 2018, found it was neither “operationally effective nor operationally suitable.” As of the latest report, DOT&E deems the system, known as MHS Genesis, operationally effective for basic clinical operations. It’s still not met that threshold for specialty care, but progress is progress. Meanwhile, overall system usability has improved from “unacceptable” to “marginal-low,” according to DOT&E.

And the department has gone some way toward improving Genesis’s cyber posture, which the office previously assessed as “not survivable” in a contested cyber environment. Starting in August, the Defense Health Agency stood up a permanent team to simulate persistent, real-world cyber threats against Genesis to continuously tests the system’s defenses.

“The innovative program will assess the cyber posture of MHS Genesis and the effectiveness of network tools, cyber defense tools, and cyber defender processes, and is one of the best ways to improve the program’s defenses against nation state-level threats,” according to the report.

In September, DoD deployed Genesis to its latest round of 10 hospitals and clinics in California and Nevada, in a part of the phased rollout known as “Wave Nellis.” And to be clear, DOT&E believes the system still has a very long way to go. Overall, testers believe Genesis is still not operationally suitable, partly because of insufficient training and usability problems.

But like VA, DoD does seem to be solving new problems as they appear during the rollout process – even if the pace of those fixes is slower than clinicians and patients might like. Eighty percent of the problems identified during initial testing at the first hospital rollout have been solved, a feat that even DOT&E terms a “significant achievement.” —JS


Marine women have longer to recover from pregnancy before testing

The Marine Corps is expanding the amount of time women have between having a child and taking physical fitness tests. The longer period of time drives straight to the heart of issues surrounding women’s health and the military that have gained saliency in recent years.

Women Marines now have 12 months from the time they give birth to the time they need to take a fitness test, an increase of three months from the previous policy. The Marine Corps is now on par with other military services like the Air Force, which already give post-partum women a year before testing.

The Marine Corps says the new policy will lower the risk of injury and prevent issues with women losing weight too quickly causing limited breastmilk production.

The policy change comes as Defense Department advisors, service members, lawmakers and outside experts are all pushing the military to rethink how it approaches women’s health.

House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Speier recently told Federal News Network she was interesting in investigating issues pregnant women in the military are experiencing.

“There are two cases that have just been made public about service members who are 14 or 15 years in, who’ve had babies and have had issues losing the weight in a timely fashion,” she said. “We need to evaluate whether or not that is fair and whether or not that is a form of discrimination.”

It’s not only pregnancy issues that the military is overlooking though.

Last year, the Defense Health Board conducted a year-long study that found the Pentagon is not providing proper medical care to women, and therefore wasting money and hurting readiness.

“Active duty women continue to experience high rates of stress fractures and other musculoskeletal injuries, urogenital infections, unintended pregnancies, sexual violence, anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders, and eating disorders. These conditions adversely affect active duty women’s readiness and health,” the authors concluded.

The board stated that DoD had been consistently made aware of these issues over the last 70 years and did little to rectify the problems.

A lot of difficulties stem from things as simple as making equipment for women. Clothing and armor made for men can be dangerous for women, the lack of proper footwear and the need for better support through sports bras also contribute.

The board gave DoD a handful of recommendations to help make life in the military more manageable for women. — SM


Army crowdsourcing solutions to sexual assault prevention

One of the Army’s airborne corps is taking a different approach to erase sexual assault and harassment from its ranks.

The Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, which encompasses 92,000 soldiers across 14 installations, is calling on its own members to come up with ideas for bettering sexual assault and harassment prevention and response.

The initiative is part of the corps’ Dragon Lair program — a Shark Tank-like competition that promotes innovative ideas from rank-and-file soldiers.

“Our panel of experts plus the command determines if the idea is appropriate for implementation across the corps,” the corps’ public affairs officer Col. Joe Buccino told Federal News Network. “There’s one soldier/innovator selected as the winner of that Dragon’s Lair. That soldier is awarded, and that idea is implemented.”

Corps Commanding General Lt. Gen. Erik Kurilla decided to prioritize sexual assault as a crowdsourced challenge after hearing from a handful of soldiers around base who had thought deeply about the issue.

“You have tons of ideas that are often locked down at the lowest level that are trapped by this Army hierarchy of grade rank and experience, and just bureaucracy,” said Capt. Annie Blank, aide-de-camp to the corps’ deputy commanding general said. “If we can flip this paradigm where we can empower and give a voice to all those ideas, but with the backing of the rank of someone like Lt. Gen. Kurilla, we might be actually be able to produce something innovative and implement it at like a wide breadth across a corps.”

Soldiers can submit their ideas online until Feb. 16 and a winner will be chosen on Feb. 22.

The challenge comes as newly confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a review of military sexual assault prevention programs.

The RAND Corporation put out a study last week explaining the effects sexual assault and harassment had on military retention rates.

The study found that victims were twice as likely to try to leave the military in the 28 months after being assaulted.

“An estimated 2,000 more separations occurred than would be expected had members not been sexually assaulted, and 8,000 separations (or roughly 8% of all separations) were similarly associated with sexual harassment” over the two-year period the study investigated. — SM


Space Force thinking about permeable active and reserve force

The Space Force is may be taking an unorthodox approach to building its components in hopes of making life more flexible for future guardians.

Space Force Staff Director Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno said the service is considering combining the active duty and reserve components to make it easier for service members to move from full time troops to part time.

“The Space Force is looking at more creative ways to partner with the Guard and reserves,” she said. “We’re actually working on a dual component, where instead of having active, Guard and reserve, we have a combined active and reserve force and then, potentially, a separate Space Guard.”

The Space Force and Air Force are working on a proposal for Congress to build a Guard component.

Armagno said the service is “working on trying to figure out how to recruit and retain the best. You recruit talent, but you retain families is another saying it. This would allow some kind of sweet spot combination between active and reserves.”

Guardians would possibly be able to go into the reserves to have a child or pursue a degree.

At this point, the military branch is only considering the idea and nothing is set in stone.

Other military services have considered making their components more flexible, but have run into some bureaucratic issues. The Space Force’s ability to build from the ground up gives it the chance to try new personnel permutations. — SM


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