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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Army plans next big migration to new HR system

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.

Is your pay correct? The Army wants to make sure as it moves to IPPS-A

The software program aimed at consolidating all of the Army’s payroll functions is planning for a huge milestone at the end of the year, but it needs soldiers’ help to make the process as smooth as possible.

The service will roll out the next phase of its Integrated Personnel and Pay System-Army (IPPS-A) on Dec. 21, encompassing more than 1 million soldiers into the program. This phase will bring in the reserve and active duty components.

However, the Army needs to ensure its payroll data for soldiers is solid and therefore is calling on troops to double check their personal information in the system.

“You’re only as good as the data that’s sitting inside of your system,” Roy Wallace, the Army assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel told reporters. “As we move forward in this we need soldiers to look at their data and make sure it’s right. Because when it when the data is bad, the outcomes are bad. We’ve got a concerted effort reaching out to each and every soldier to get in and look at their data and make sure it’s right.”

With the current decentralized pay systems soldiers are unable to see all the details in their personnel files. Soldiers will need to meet with their local unit personnel office to ensure things like salary, family size and other important information are up to date.

Since some paperwork may need to be processed in order to make sure those details are correct, the Army is encouraging soldiers to meet with their personnel office as early as they can before the switch.

IPPS-A will eventually be the Army’s one-stop-shop for all human resources related matters from pay and benefits to job selection.

The service already transitioned members of the National Guard over to the new program.

“We have every state and territory active in IPPS-A today, so more than 330,000 National Guard soldiers are all completely inside IPPS-A and we divested  from 54 versions of old army systems,” Col. Gregory S. Johnson, IPPS-A functional management division chief, said. “Those systems were early 80s technology that were put in place that the Guard had upgraded in each individual state. Now that is sunsetted. That is gone.”

Johnson said many of issues with IPPS-A during the earlier National Guard switch were based on data.

“The 54 retired pay systems had different code baselines, they had different data structures,” he said. “We had some issues pulling that data over and getting it clean. As we went live, and we focused tremendous amount of effort on making sure that data was correct.”

Johnson said that experience is a big part of why the Army is asking soldiers to confirm their current information. — SM

GAO finds ‘distortions’ in how private military housing firms are compensated

Some of the military’s privatized housing providers may be getting something of a  windfall because of a quirk in how DoD is reimbursing them for recent cuts in military housing allowance rates, while others appear to be getting shortchanged, according to a new review by the Government Accountability Office.

The root of the issue goes back to 2015, when DoD proposed, and Congress agreed, to start requiring servicemembers to pay some of their own housing costs in order to cut costs in its personnel budget. Those cuts took full effect last year, reducing the housing allowances they’d otherwise get by 5%.

But even as the reductions were first taking place, Defense officials worried about the effects they would have on their on-base housing providers. Those firms, after all, had planned their real estate management operations on a predictable revenue stream that was now being cut by 5%. Congress responded by ordering the military services to make up the 5% difference and pay it directly to their housing companies, with half that amount dedicated to underfunded projects.

But it’s possible lawmakers didn’t think fully think through the reimbursement methodology they directed. The Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) cuts — or “cost shares” — as DoD prefers to call them, are a fixed dollar amount no matter where a servicemember is stationed. The reimbursements to housing providers, on the other hand, are tied directly to local market-based BAH rates. And 5% of BAH in the San Francisco Bay Area is very different from 5% of BAH at Camp Lejeune.

What that means in practice, according to GAO, is that almost all of the reimbursements were either above or below what the companies needed to actually make them whole as a result of the original BAH reduction. Thirty-two  housing projects got more money than was needed to offset those cuts — six of them by $1 million or more. On the other side, 48 projects got less money, and 6 were shortchanged by $1 million or more.

“By requiring BAH reductions to be reduced by the national BAH rate and the congressionally mandated payments to privatized housing projects be based on the local BAH rate, Congress created unintended distortions in payments to the projects,” the watchdog noted.

For its part, DoD told GAO it simply did what Congress ordered it to do, both when it came to calculating the BAH reductions and the reimbursements to housing companies. But Defense officials told GAO reviewers it does make some sense to peg the BAH reductions to a nationwide, fixed dollar figure.

According to the report, “DoD noted [that[ implementing reductions in this way is equitable, because it ensures that the amount of the reduction (i.e., the amount that comes ‘out of pocket’ from servicemembers’ total compensation) is the same across any given pay grade and dependency status, regardless of where in the United States a servicemember is stationed.” —JS

Air Force readies civilian career development

The Department of the Air Force is offering more than 30 educational development programs for civilian employees for the 2022 cycle.

The programs prepare civilian Air Force and Space Force workers for the demands of their job and enrich their resumes. The courses range from leadership to academic pursuits.

“Civilian force development came about as a way for the department of the Air Force to invest in people and actively demonstrate a commitment to deliberately developing our civilian workforce,” Jana Ramon, an Air Force Personnel Center human resources specialist told Federal News Network. “We rely on military and civilian leaders to have the right competencies to accomplish the mission and win any high end fight. Leading in an ever changing environment is going to require critical thinking and strategic leadership skills. The courses that we offer help hone these skills and prepare our civilian leaders to work shoulder to shoulder with those military counterparts to ensure continuity of operations.”

The courses civilians can apply for are sometimes made for military service members or may be taught in a more casual setting like the National Defense University.

“Participation in developmental programs positively impacts retention and is one of the ways the department invests in its people,” Becky Venters, chief of the Civilian Leadership Development Program said.

The courses are broken into four subject areas: Developmental education, academic/fellowships, leadership seminars and experiential assignments.

“The experiential assignments are more of the on-the-job-type development still at an enterprise leadership perspective,” said Craig Pearson, the Air Force Civilian Strategic Leader Program manager. “The intent is still the same, to try to find that right person at the right time to develop those competencies, to increase the professional development and accomplish the mission. Those who are interested in these developmental experiential assignments have to first apply to the program — it’s competitive.”

Those interested for all the programs must send in their applications by Feb. 26. — SM

Intelligence community is calling on AI to ease work on analysts

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.

IARPA working on AI satellite imagery solutions

The intelligence community awarded four contracts to build out a program that will allow artificial intelligence to tag and track satellite images.

The Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique (SMART) is an undertaking by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity — the IC’s high risk, high reward research arm.

“The goal of the SMART program is really to cut through what amounts to an avalanche of satellite imagery that’s coming down, being collected and analyzed,” Jack Cooper, a program manager at IARPA, told Federal News Network. “Our goal is to automate part of that process. We want to automate the broad area search and detection and characterization of larger evolving events.”

IARPA hopes by using AI to monitor things like heavy construction and crop growth that SMART can free up more time for analysts to focus on deeper work.

“There’s simply not enough analysts to look at all the data that that comes down,” Cooper said. Automation enhances our capability because we’re now touching that data. We are getting some coverages not perhaps, to the level of a true subject matter expert’s eyeballs on detailed analysis, but it is enough to understand and tag that for perhaps future review. The Earth is a huge place and we have lots of different satellites collecting data on it. With automation suddenly those places that maybe we weren’t checking and frequently were lower in the in the queue, now they’re a part of the analysis too. We are really enhancing that capability by expanding the swath of area we have knowledge on what we’re staying up to date on.”

IARPA awarded contracts to Accenture Federal Services, BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, Kitware and Systems and Technology Research. The contracts are multiyear and multiphase to allow the companies to build out different ways to tag the information.

“The goal of IARPA is to prove out that concept, and ultimately transition it to a partner or another agency into a program of record and in those regards, but this is a three phase program lasting four years,” Cooper said. — SM

Service members get permanent perk on moving reimbursements

Service members who want to hire their own movers when changing locations for military orders saw the reimbursement rate from the government increase to 100% early in the COVID-19 pandemic. That perk is now permanent.

U.S. Transportation Command put out guidance on Jan. 1, stating that all troops who hire their own private movers can get the Defense Department to pay the full price even after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

The change gives military families more options when moving, especially at a time when the military’s household goods reputation has been less than stellar. Families reported missing and broken goods. TRANSCOM is in the process of revamping its household goods contract to make companies hired by the military more accountable and improve service. However, the contract is in its nascent stages.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, families were only reimbursed 95% of the best value cost when hiring private movers.

In late May, DoD decided to give families the extra 5% to help out with economic issues and moving problems caused by COVID.

Moving is still a complicated situation for the military during the pandemic. As of Jan. 18, 63% of military bases had travel restrictions. That translates to about 150 bases limiting travel. Those limits include service members needing waivers to move to new orders to restrictions on how far troops can go from their installations.

Air Force eases hair restrictions

Women airmen now have more options for how they can wear their hair after the Air Force reviewed its grooming standards last week.

Longer ponytails and braids are now accepted in the service. Women can wear a single braid or ponytail or double braids down to the top inseam of their sleeves.

The moves comes after reports of damaged hair, headaches and even hair loss for some airmen due to the previous grooming standards. Recommendations for new standards came from thousands of women across the force to the 101st Air Force uniform board, which convened last November.

The changes will go into effect in February.

“This decision is a commitment to supporting the airmen we need and sustaining the culture and environment of excellence that will continue to make the Air Force an attractive career choice for airmen and families,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown. “I’m thankful for the feedback and research conducted from a number of women leaders, the Women’s Initiative Team, the Air Force uniform board, and our joint teammates.”

The Air Force and other services have recently been rethinking their grooming standards that have negatively affected certain cultures or people with specific health issues.

“In addition to the health concerns we have for our Airmen, not all women have the same hair type, and our hair standards should reflect our diverse force,” said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass. “I am pleased we could make this important change for our women service members.”

Last year, the Air Force published guidance allowing airmen prone to razor bumps to grow short beards. The same guidance also allowed airmen to wear turbans and hijabs. — SM

DISA’s first-ever production OTA eliminated $300M in future costs

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.

DISA OTA for cloud-based internet isolation a sign of more to come

The Defense Information Systems Agency’s first-ever use of an other transaction agreement (OTA) for production work came at an opportune time. Just as the pandemic was creating massive strains on DoD networks, the OTA gave DISA a brand new way to move huge amounts of traffic off of them.

In August, the agency awarded By Light Professional IT Services a nearly $200 million agreement to start deploying a technique called cloud-based internet isolation (CBII). As the name implies, the program moves Defense users’ web browsing off of their actual desktops and laptops; indeed, off of Defense networks entirely. The actual browsing activity happens in a commercial cloud environment.

The move was originally intended mainly as a security measure. After all, if the browser is in the cloud, any malware users happen to run across stays there too. But since the program keeps both good and bad traffic in the cloud, it also has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of traffic that has to traverse through DoD internet access points.

Christopher Barnhurst, DISA’s executive deputy director, said CBII let DISA avoid an estimated $300 million in expenditures it would otherwise have had to make to expand the capacity of the interconnections between DoD’s own networks and the public internet.

“We have a constantly increasing demand for bandwidth capacity, and at the same time, we have sensor capacity for cyber defense, both of which can be restrictive. The department was on a path where those two things were increasing exponentially,” he said last week at an event hosted by AFCEA D.C. “CBII allowed us to think differently about how to solve that problem — not go down the linear path of just constantly upgrading capacity, but maybe figure out a way to offload some of that bandwidth and increase security at the same time. That’s the kind of mindset that I think will help us increase our speed and capability and break down barriers.”

DISA first began development work on CBII two years ago. By 2019, it had decided to use an other transaction agreement to prototype the concept, and two different firms had been piloting their technologies for about a year before the agency awarded By Light a follow-on agreement to deploy their approach at large-scale. It was DISA’s first use of a statutory authority that lets DoD move directly into production OTA contracts as long as the prototypes were awarded competitively.

But Steve Wallace, the systems innovation scientist for DISA’s emerging technologies directorate, said it’s unlikely to be the last.

“Where we started in our thinking with CBII is not actually where we ended up: Our thinking evolved over a year or two. And the OTA was key,” he said. “Without that, we would have written a set of requirements that likely, once it all played out, wouldn’t have been exactly what we want wanted. But it was a lot of work in partnership with industry that got us there, so we want to take that same philosophy and continually apply that and get faster about it.” —JS

Navy training sailors for future weapons systems

The military has put a lot of effort into trying to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to new technology. But, what about the people who will be using that technology?

The Navy is taking a hard look at itself to find out where it has “lethality training gaps,” areas where sailors may not be up to date on using the most state-of-the-art technology or may not be prepared for that technology when it comes out.

“This work will ensure that we are really ready to train for future capabilities like Constellation Class frigate plans, unmanned hypersonic, etc. before those platforms get here,” said Vice Adm. John Nowell, deputy chief of naval operations for personnel, training and education. “The team has done some ‘I worry’ work to align your internal structure to better focus on the warfighter in the future Navy.”

Nowell said the Navy is working to have a virtual training platform at every port, which can simulate new systems.

The Navy is also looking at its learning centers to see what gaps need to be fixed and what training systems they may need.

The Navy plans on closing its lethality gap by improving training systems, putting more curriculum online and putting an emphasis on high quality instructors.

“We need your passion, we need your expertise,” Nowell said. “Please know that we as a community we value this service, and we will reward it in training board and selection boards.”

The Navy is also focusing on improving training and education in other ways as well. The service just started its community college, which allows sailors, Marines and members of the Coast Guard to get college credit for some of their training.

“A key to building a mission-ready total workforce is investing in our people and their education,” said Gladys Brignoni, director of the Coast Guard’s Force Readiness Command. “The Naval Community College effort will help develop the skills of our workforce through formal education opportunities. This is an exciting opportunity for the Coast Guard and we look forward to all of the future possibilities this holds for our service and our workforce.” — SM

DoD still struggling to account for billions in intra-departmental transactions

If the Defense Department ever hopes to earn a clean opinion on its financial audits, one of the problems it will need to solve is the accounting discrepancies that happen when one part of DoD sells goods or services to another part. And it’s a big problem.

The Government Accountability Office’s latest review of DoD’s intra-departmental transactions – one of the many material weakness areas in the department’s financial statements – noted that DoD had to make corrections for $112 billion of those transactions as it closed out its 2019 books. Of those, $102 billion were deemed to be “unsupported.”

Those corrections, called “top-side adjustments,” come into play when, for example, the Air Force sells spare parts to the Navy, but their separate financial systems record different dollar amounts, or they’re not reported in the same quarter. If there’s no way to reconcile the differences with reliable data, the Defense Finance and Accounting Services simply changes one of the two amounts so that they match. And auditors tend to frown on that sort of thing.

DoD’s long-term plan to fix the problem is to have all the military services and Defense agencies adopt the Treasury Department’s G-Invoicing platform. The upside is that Defense components would all be using a single system with shared data about terms and conditions, orders, payments and delivery, pretty much eliminating the possibility that an Air Force system and a Navy system would disagree about what actually happened in a given transaction.

The downside is that DoD officials claim the Treasury system doesn’t actually meet their business needs in several key areas.

According to GAO, DoD wants G-Invoicing changed in several ways. For example, some of DoD’s transactions require sign-off by three or more senior officials; the Treasury system can only accommodate two. They’ve also complained the system can’t accommodate partial orders, and that some data elements in the system don’t match up with DoD’s needs to assign an accountable official for each transaction.

DoD has started developing workarounds in case Treasury doesn’t change its platform in the way the department wants, but there’s no telling how long either pathway will take. —JS

Army turning its soldiers into video game stars for recruitment

The Army is trying to mix virtual atmospheres with hands-on experiences to get Generation Z excited about joining the military.

The service is offering a deeper look into what it’s like to be a soldier by highlighting 12 career fields on social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and YouTube between now and April 2.

The Army will follow 12 specific soldiers working in each of the fields by posting videos, interviews, account takeovers and other media.

“When we launched ‘What’s Your Warrior?,’ we established a new world for Gen Z to inhabit and explore its Army on their terms — and we know they liked what they saw thanks to a nearly 53% spike in online interest in the first year alone,” said Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, chief of Army Enterprise Marketing. “To continue the momentum, now we’re inviting youth deeper into this world through the eyes and experiences of real soldiers. Who better to introduce America’s youth to the wealth of opportunity in the U.S. Army than the soldiers who live and breathe it every day?”

The Army picked the 12 career fields out of a total of 200 possibilities. Each soldier is given a video game-type avatar. They include:

The Dragon Tamer (1st Lt. Phillip Fluke, Aviation Officer*): It takes a near-mythical level of skill to harness the power of an Army helicopter. Army pilots’ determination and specialized training allow them to do the seemingly impossible.

The Wavelength (Sgt. Jennifer Smith, Signal Support Systems Specialist): Signal warriors have the technical expertise to capture and send the critical communications we can’t see. This allows the seamless connection between units and the entire Army across the globe.

The Virus Hunter (Maj. Derese Getnet, Microbiologist): It takes a certain kind of power to confront and neutralize the not-so-little threats to human health.  The microbiologists work to not only handle ongoing threats but ones that may occur in the future.

The Chameleon (Sgt. 1st Class Jean-Noel Howell, Infantryman*): A sniper gains a tactical advantage by disappearing into the landscape. Their mastery of stealth, reconnaissance, and weaponry makes them the deadliest unseen force on the battlefield.

The Thunder Maker (Staff Sgt. Jada Madson, Multiple Launch Rocket Systems Crewmember): Firing rockets and missiles from miles away, they provide tactical support and clear advantage on the battlefield with each resounding rocket impact and flash.

The Ground Breaker (Sgt. Frincee Prado, Technical Engineer): An expert in design and construction, the technical engineer imagines structures and works collaboratively with the engineering community to build them into existence.

The Code Fighter (Maj. Erika Alvarado, Cyber Operations Officer): The Army needs those with digital chops to hold the frontlines of the future. Here cyber warriors battle threats that attempt to come across the digital network day in and day out.

The Sharpened Steel (Col. Roy Danks, General Surgeon): As powerful as any weapon in battle, a surgeon’s expert skills can be the instrumental difference between life and death.

The Replenisher (Sgt. Josthin Josue Servellon Hernandez, Culinary Specialist): Army chefs fuel the force by providing the critical nutrition our Soldiers need to succeed in any mission.

The Force Multiplier (Sgt. Maj. Zachary Bowman, Special Forces Senior Sergeant): A “force multiplier” has the ability to scale their power. In this case, it’s the Special Forces Soldier’s training of indigenous forces to protect and defend themselves. Special Forces Soldiers have various roles they master, enabling them to be the solution in any climate and place.

The Nerve Center (Spc. Marian Jones, Intelligence Analyst): When the data pours in, it takes a corps of experts to analyze it and find the advantages, turning information into action.

The Upper Hand (Sgt. Javaughn Harrison, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operator): With a mighty fleet at their fingertips, unmanned aircraft systems operators give their nation the ultimate aerial advantage.

The Army is changing to way it recruits in order to bring in more Gen Zers. The service is focusing more on urban areas than in the past and has created an esports team to engage with children. — SM

Caring for service members one text at a time

The Defense Health Agency is offering a limited-time program to keep service members and their families healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The My MilLife Guide is an eight-week “course” that sends text messages to the military community to boost overall wellness and navigate stress during COVID-19.

“Our service members and their families deserve the best possible care. I want to utilize all available tools to ensure their health, wellness, and readiness records are easily accessible,” said Army Col. Dr. Neil Page, deputy and military chief of the clinical support division for medical affairs at the Defense Health Agency. “The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that sometimes these tools are best provided through digital health services. We in the Military Health System are excited to partner with Military OneSource to provide a text-based wellness program that puts valuable resources at our beneficiaries’ fingertips, in a new and innovative way.”

The program will cover areas like stress relief, getting better sleep, self-care, strengthening relationships and managing finances.

The course prompts users to start each week with a goal and take small steps to accomplish that goal.

The program will end Feb. 12. Service members can sign up by testing “MilLife SM” to GOV311. Spouses can sign up by texting “MilLife Spouse” to the same number. Users can receive up to four text messages a week. — SM

DoD stands up permanent program to give vendors access to top-tier secrets

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

DoD bringing companies into the fold for sensitive info

After a years long pilot, the Defense Department is establishing a permanent program that will let some trusted companies in on critical military information to help build needed systems.

“As the world sees a return to great power competition, DoD must strengthen its engagement with the defense industrial base in order to respond to the national security challenges facing the United States in a more responsive and cost efficient manner,” a Dec. 15 memo signed by Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord states.

The memo goes on to state that, increasingly, technologies and information are squirreled away in special access programs.

Those are programs that exceed regular classified information and entail highly sensitive operations and black projects.

“The Special Access Program Corporate Portfolio Program was deliberately developed over the past several years to ensure it is a strong and sustainable program,” Pentagon spokesperson Jessica Maxwell told Federal News Network. “The pilot effort was established in 2016 and successfully carried forward into the current administration.  The director of the Department of Defense’s Special Access Program Central Office is responsible for executing this program and that position is filled by a military general officer (currently an Air Force  Major General). The DoD believes the Corporate Portfolio Program is an important effort and that it will be sustained into the future.”

DoD said the program will integrate DoD and corporate interests with the goal of increasing technology development and cost efficiency. The Pentagon hopes the program will allow the industrial base to gain more insight into what DoD needs for the purposes of independent research.

DoD says the program will also provide private sector professionals with accesses that will help them protect information better and allow companies to work better to serve their own missions.

Only certain companies will be able to participate in the program. For example, a corporation must be on contract with DoD for 15 or more special access programs to be eligible. — SM

DHA moving ahead with transition after pause and military service concerns

The Defense Health Agency said it is continuing to take over the military services’ hospitals and clinics despite concerns from the leaders of the branches.

DHA put the transition on hold in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pause in Military Health System (MHS) transition let us compile a number of lessons learned,” Barclay Butler, DHA assistant director for management, said. “We then applied those lessons learned to MHS reform. We also used the pause to improve the transition planning, and the transition products.”

DHA said those lessons included standardization of military health metrics reporting to the DoD. Previously, each military service reported that information separately to the DoD. DHA has now turned that into a collective system.

Butler said that one of the most important results of the past year was the confirmation that the DHA is progressing in the right direction with the market model. That model rearranges how family members and retirees can use treatment facilities. Some facilities would take on more of those patients, while about 200,000 others would be forced to find care in the private sector.

“The services asked the defense secretary to re-asses the approach and the secretary took that information and made a decision on the 9th of November to continue forward with our plan,” Butler said.

The leaders of the military services wrote a letter last August expressing concern that the transition may harm military health.

“The DHA end-state, as designed, introduces barriers, creates unnecessary complexity and increases inefficiencies and cost,” the military officials wrote. “Service command and control of the MTFs as military units, through our direct support, was critical to commanders’ operational response [to coronavirus] and swiftly adjusting resources across the enterprise.”

The letter asked DoD to stop the transition of MTFs, personnel and resources, and to return all MTFs to their respective services until the best course of action can be determined.

The letter also asked DoD to direct the military departments to establish a working group to provide a concept plan for what the next steps should be and what legislation might be needed.

“The proposed DHA end-state represents unsustainable growth with a disparate intermediate structure that hinders coordination of service medical responses to contingency operations, such as a pandemic,” the officials wrote. “It was the services’ legacy structures that provided the streamlined command and control and the stability required for execution of plans and deployment of medical forces.”

DHA seems to be saying that it has assessed the concerns and is still moving ahead.

Congress also wants to push forward with the plan. It is heeding the advice of the military services, however. While the transition started in 2018 and was supposed to originally only take a couple years, lawmakers pushed the deadline to 2022 out of caution.

In the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers pushed the movement of the service medical research arms to 2025.

“DoD must continue on the path required by law to eliminate the inefficient, stove-piped MHS structure that inevitably leads to turf wars among the services and the DHA, while simultaneously paralyzing decision-making and stifling healthcare innovation,” lawmakers wrote in the 2021 NDAA conference report. “The conferees expect that the DHA shall oversee, manage, and direct the MHS’s delivery of direct and purchased healthcare.”

DoD makes changes to how it certifies women-owned small businesses

The Pentagon will no longer let its own contracting officers make their own determinations about whether companies are eligible for set-aside contracts under the government’s women-owned small business programs, and is telling them to rely instead on a database maintained by the Small Business Administration.

A memo DoD’s office of Defense Pricing and Contracting issued on Dec. 17 tells procurement officials that sole source and set-aside contracts targeted toward women-owned small businesses can only go to firms that SBA has registered in its Dynamic Small Business Search system. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Council is working on a change that would eventually apply similar dictates governmentwide, but the Pentagon has chosen to do it early via a class deviation.

Both the deviation and the FAR case are meant to implement changes SBA itself made last year when it made changes to how women-owned small business gain certification. They’ll no longer be able to self-certify as eligible for those awards; rather, either SBA or a recognized third-party assessor will have to verify they meet the criteria as either a women-owned small business (WOSB) or economically disadvantaged women-owned small business (EDWOSB).

In rulemaking filings last year, SBA predicted the changes will increase the share of government contracts that go to women-owned small firms – largely because agency contracting officers will now be able to consult an authoritative database, rather than doing the legwork of verifying a contractor’s eligibility themselves.

“Under the existing system, the burden of eligibility compliance is placed upon the awarding contracting officer. Contracting officers must review the documentation of the apparent successful offeror on a WOSB or EDWOSB contract. Under this rule, the burden is placed upon SBA and/or third-party certifiers,” the agency wrote in a notice in May. “This will encourage more contracting officers to set aside opportunities for WOSB program participants as the validation process will be controlled by SBA. Increased procurement awards to WOSB concerns can further close a gap of under-representation of women in industries where in the aggregate WOSB represent 12% of all sales in contrast with male-owned businesses that represent 79% of all sales.”

The changes are part of legislation Congress passed in the 2015 Defense authorization bill. It gave agencies the authority to make sole-source awards to WOSBs, while also telling SBA to take a more active role in the certification process.

Under DoD’s latest changes, women-owned firms who are on track to get a DoD contract but aren’t yet certified in SBA’s system are supposed to get a fast-track treatment: SBA has promised to process their certifications within 15 days if an award is pending, according to the DoD memo. —JS

DoD, Microsoft ask court to dismiss Amazon’s political bias claims in JEDI case

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.

AWS needed to make allegations of improper influence in JEDI contract long ago, attorneys argue

Lawyers for Microsoft and the government are asking a federal court to dismiss key portions of Amazon’s lawsuit over the Defense Department’s JEDI Cloud contract, in a nutshell, because the claims in question were raised too late to be legally viable.

In court filings unsealed late last week, attorneys asked the Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the portions of Amazon Web Services’ bid protest that allege DoD awarded the contract to Microsoft because of political bias, bad faith or conflicts of interest.

They argue those claims, even if accurate, are almost entirely based on information Amazon knew or should have known before Microsoft was chosen as the surprise winner of the JEDI contract in Oct. 2019. And if Amazon had evidence of bias, it needed to raise those issues in a pre-award protest, they contend.

“If AWS had raised its bias allegations in a timely pre-award protest, this court could have adjudicated those claims before DoD spent many months evaluating — and then reevaluating — the proposals. If AWS had persuasively shown bias, this court could have directed DoD to replace its allegedly-biased source selection team, before DoD and the offerors expended the months of time and effort associated with the corrective action, which involved numerous proposal submissions and amendments to the solicitation,” Microsoft attorneys wrote. “The court also would have resolved AWS’s objections before DoD twice disclosed Microsoft’s price to AWS in post-award debriefings. AWS’ serial ‘wait and see’ approach to litigating its bias claim is directly at odds with Blue & Gold’s policy of discouraging strategic, untimely protests.”

“Blue & Gold” is a Court of Federal Claims precedent which holds, generally, that if protestors see problems with a procurement, they need to challenge them before an award is made, not after they’ve lost.

Amazon, unsurprisingly, has a different view of the matter. AWS contends it was operating on a presumption that DoD source selection officials would operate in good faith, and that it only became aware of many of the issues the company is raising now during the post-award debriefing process.

“The debriefing materials and the administrative record underlying DoD’s corrective action revealed that DoD’s re-evaluations were designed to reach a pre-determined, politically expedient re-award to Microsoft,” AWS attorneys wrote. “The record demonstrated that, following AWS’s emergence as the lowest priced offeror, DoD purported to find ‘new’ strengths for Microsoft and ‘new’ weaknesses for AWS. These ‘new’ evaluations, manufactured to justify a re-award to Microsoft despite its substantial price premium, are demonstrably pretextual.”

Even if the court sides with Microsoft and DoD in their motions to partially dismiss the lawsuit, the key word is “partial.” Amazon’s allegations of improper political influence by President Trump and others make up only one of the four counts of the latest complaint it filed after DoD took corrective action and re-issued the contract to Microsoft. The other three counts allege DoD failed to follow its own solicitation when it evaluated bids, treated the two companies differently in the source selection process, and made an “irrational” best value decision.

None of those claims would be barred by Blue & Gold, and in the one instance the court has made a ruling in the JEDI case so far, it was on one of those more run-of-the-mill bid protest issues, not Amazon’s claims of political bias.

In February, judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith issued a preliminary injunction stopping work on JEDI, finding Amazon was likely to win the lawsuit because of a defect in DoD’s award process dealing with cloud storage.

That ruling prompted DoD to take the contract back for corrective action, but it’s still unclear if the court will be convinced the department has actually done so, or that Amazon’s other claims about technical defects in the source selection process don’t have merit. Indeed, Campbell-Smith made clear at the time of the injunction that she was not examining Amazon’s other allegations just yet, because the cloud storage issue was serious enough on its own to merit a JEDI work stoppage.

Microsoft and DoD filed a similar motion to dismiss the case earlier this year, but the court never ruled on that petition because DoD’s decision to take corrective action made the issue moot for the time being. The defendants in Amazon’s lawsuit contend that since there have now been two awards in the procurement, AWS has had two chances to file pre-award protests that would have been in line with Blue & Gold, and has now forfeited its right to raise the bias issues twice. —JS

Army outlines ambitious plan for installations

The Army is preparing its installations for 2035 and beyond. To do that it is implementing a strategy that takes into account new security assumptions that involve higher levels of leadership than plans of the past.

The installations strategy, which was released last week, is a comprehensive outlook of what the Army needs to do for its people, readiness, security, modernization and sustainment of bases and the assets on them.

“It’s the first Army enterprise-wide strategy that identified the need for modern, resilient and sustainable installations,” Alex Beehler, Army assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment, told Federal News Network. “It outlines how best to move forward to support what we call the multidomain force for the next 15 years. It also puts an emphasis on how Army installations, services and systems can best be protected from attacks, climate change and environmental degradation.”

Beehler said the plan not only has the approval of Army leaders, but also all of the generals from Army commands. The Army received comments from more than 150 different service leaders in an attempt to intertwine the installations strategy with other recent plans set out by the military branch — such as the Army’s People Strategy and modernization effort. The installations strategy is also entrenched in the National Defense Strategy, which puts an emphasis on near-peer competition and moving military operations and business management into the 21st century.

In following the National Defense Strategy, the Army had to throw out a key assumption: That the bases in the homeland were safe from attack. With the cyber and space domains becoming more important domains, attacks on installations can happen anywhere.

“We are more exposed to a whole host of threats,” Beehler said. “You could put them in two broad categories: Near peer power threats — that would include things like cyber security — and then climate change, which is specifically mentioned in the strategy, that’s a very important component of what we want the installations to be focused on.”

To deal with those issues the Army has short-, mid- and long-term goals. Those include determining capability gaps and integrating security sensors. In the long-term, they encompass environmental remediation and enhancing protection of bases.

“Army installations must possess both active and passive protection measures that preserve critical capabilities, assets, and activities essential to meeting National Defense Strategy requirements,” the authors of the strategy state. “To achieve this, the Army will develop comprehensive risk-based assessments for installations and reflect these risks in a common operating picture at echelon. These assessments should inform a prioritized list of protection capabilities required to anticipate, prevent, or mitigate adversary actions.”

The strategy looks at installations in terms of retention and readiness. The military is competing with the private sector, which can offer certain perks that the Army is hoping to rival. At the same time, after seeing failures in the public-private housing partnership, the service is trying to clean up the issues of mold, pests and lead paint in privatized Army housing.

“The installation strategy will provide a holistic approach on investment and use of all of the facilities on any given base with the idea that the number one focus of investment, and of management, should be and starts with the people on the base,” Beehler said. “I think that is a sea change, a cultural change that will then permeate through in the areas such as housing.”

The Army is investing billions in remediating and building new houses and the private companies are also investing funds. However, there are still issues, and some soldiers and their families continue to report problems with privatized military housing.

“If a soldier is worried about the housing or some aspect of the family or childcare, that is a distraction,” Beehler said. “That is really unnecessary and that should be corrected so that the soldier can focus as much as possible on the mission facing that soldier.”

At the same time, the strategy pushes base modernization for security and mission but also for building a better life for soldiers.

The Army is working on experimental autonomous shuttle programs to take soldiers to work or easier ways to access bases.

“Future soldiers will expect installations to modernize at pace with civilian sector smart cities initiatives,” the authors of the strategy state. “Opportunities that leverage technology through creation of data-informed, smart installations will allow the Army to pivot from an industrial-age paradigm, characterized by rigidity and purpose built specialization, to a data-rich, reconfigurable, and technology-enhanced information-age construct. The Army must take advantage of American ingenuity, innovation, and culture of performance to learn and adapt in real time to rapidly evolving conditions enabling commanders to make better decisions about installation operations and quality of life for our people.”

All this is happening with a budget that is notoriously underfunded. Installations are usually one of the first things on the chopping block when budgets get tight.

“We estimate that we have an overarching sustainment maintenance backlog of some $40 billion,” Beehler said. “In order to address all of that, plus, be able to get the installations transition into 21st century, we’re going to have to basically get more out of fewer dollars.”

Beehler said he believes the installations strategy is the first step in doing that because it is a generalized agreement that commanders need to use data to drive decisions, which the Army hopes will save money. — SM

New survey hopes to address race in military communities

One of the most prominent organizations representing military families and their communities is conducting a survey to look at race and diversity within the military environment.

The survey, conducted by the Association of Defense Communities (ADC), encompasses service members from all areas of the military, family members, veterans, civilians and even people who live near installations.

ADC is conducting the survey as part of its One Military, One Community initiative, which was created in response to the national conversation on racial justice that sparked up further this year.

“While today our country’s military is more diverse than ever, some of our defense communities are the least diverse places in the country,” Tim Ford, ADC CEO, told Federal News Network. “This means the military may be asking service members to live in communities where they may not feel completely welcomed. ADC’s initiative One Military, One Community seeks to provide support, information and resources for those interested in exploring these issues of diversity, inclusion and equity in defense communities.”

Ford said that it expects thousands of responses, based on the strong response ADC has received in just the first few days. The report on the survey will be available in early 2021.

“Multiple events of racial injustice in the past year have highlighted the issue of racial inequality in America and shaped an ongoing national discussion,” Ford said. “This conversation has been embraced by our military leadership – both uniform and civilian – who have made it clear that the military needs to do more.  We also know equity issues will be a priority for the Biden administration and their nominee for secretary of defense, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin.  As defense communities, we work to reflect the values of the military and support their mission – and that mission now includes strong efforts to address racial inequalities.”

Congress abolishes DoD’s top management position without settling on alternative

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.

Congress to Pentagon: Reform thyself

Considering that last year’s Defense authorization bill explicitly said Congress intended to do away with the position of DoD chief management officer in this year’s bill, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the final legislation unveiled last week would do just that. What’s maybe more surprising is what lawmakers decided to replace the CMO’s office with: absolutely nothing.

Instead, the latest National Defense Authorization Act gives an enormous amount of discretion to President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming Defense secretary to figure out how to make things work. They will have to decide how the CMO organizations’ current responsibilities should be redistributed throughout the department — a process that has to be finished within the next year, when the position will officially be abolished.

The Defense Business Board, before President Donald Trump fired most of its members last week, had also advocated to disestablish the CMO. But the board also offered Congress and Defense policymakers three different options to make sure there still was a single accountable official focused on business reform. But lawmakers punted on that question, instead telling DoD to return to Capitol Hill with any changes in legislation the secretary thinks are necessary to wind the CMO operation down in an orderly way.

The one stipulation on the secretary’s discretion: Whoever’s going to handle any of the existing responsibilities of the CMO office can’t be someone who’s ever served as DoD Chief Management Officer.

Even while the Pentagon is spinning down its only central organization in charge of business improvements, it will also need to spend the next year building new plans for the reforms it was charged with. Another section of the bill orders the secretary to “establish policies, guidance, and a consistent reporting framework” across five “covered elements”:

  • Business systems modernization
  • Enterprise business operations process re-engineering
  • Expanded and modernized collection, management, dissemination, and visualization of data
  • Improvements in workforce training and education for business reform
  • Improvements to decision-making processes to enable cost savings, cost avoidance, or investments to develop process improvements.

Those areas closely match the current CMO’s duties, as articulated by Congress when it created the office just three years ago.

In an interview with Federal News Network earlier this year, Lisa Hershman, the incumbent CMO argued her office simply has not had enough time to accomplish the herculean task of fixing DoD’s management weaknesses, particularly since Congress has had a tendency to further reorganize the department in ways large and small during each NDAA cycle.

“The problem is they’re changing things so quickly that we don’t always get a chance to make progress,” she said in the July interview after both houses of Congress had voted to abolish her position. “[The change of responsibility for] business systems is a great example. It went into place on Jan 1, 2019, and within four months, we had NDAA language to change it back [to the CIO]. It’s very difficult to get your arms around the problem and start showing demonstrable improvement when the shifts are happening that rapidly.”

The explanatory language accompanying this year’s bill offers no comment about what Congress hopes to achieve with this year’s management reform, nor does it say explicitly why lawmakers decided to get rid of the CMO. It’s also silent on how DoD should continue to increase its oversight and management over the “fourth estate” — the Defense agencies outside the military services — in the absence of the CMO.

That issue has been a major focus for Hershman, who considers herself the de-facto “secretary of the fourth estate,” and one of Congress’ major stated reasons for creating the office in the first place. —JS

DoD survey finds military spouse quality of life declining

Military spouses are continually becoming less satisfied with military life, according to a new report from the Defense Department.

Every two years, the Pentagon takes the temperature of military spouses. DoD just released its 2019 results and it saw a pretty significant decline in satisfaction. About 56% of military spouses said they were satisfied. That’s a decline of 4% from 2017 and an 8% decrease from 2015.

Marine Corps spouses were the least satisfied of the bunch with a 53% satisfaction rate, while the Air Force was the highest with 60%. The Air Force shouldn’t take that number as a win, though — eight years ago 72% of spouses reported being satisfied.

The highest rate of satisfied spouses came from the O-4 to O-6 levels (68%), while the least satisfied were married to the E-1 to E-4 ranks (23%).

Part of the issue for military spouses may be the fact that spousal unemployment is at a level much higher (22%) than the national average and that military childcare is still tough to come by. That makes it hard for spouses to live their own lives, especially after moving to new duty stations with their service members.

One number that may be concerning for DoD is that many spouses were not aware of some of the financial assistance available to them.

A total of 46% of spouses said they were not aware of the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts Scholarship, which provides $4,000 to the advancement of a career. Only 4% of spouses said they actually used the scholarship in the past year and 12% said they used it more than a year ago.

DoD found that it was fairly spread out in how long it took spouses to find employment after a permanent change of station. Sixteen percent said it took less than one month, 29% said it took one to four months, 21% for four-to-seven months, 9% for seven-to -0 months and 26% for more than 10 months.

About 59% of spouses favored staying in the military, a drop from 61% in 2017 and from 68% eight years ago.

The survey also took a look at what benefits spouses valued the most. Coming in at number one was access to quality health care. Spouses also highly valued job security for their service member, a good retirement plan and recreation and fitness activities

Savings on groceries and retail merchandise were lower ranked benefits.

There was some good news for military spouses. Financial comfortability remained largely the same at about 70%. — SM

Will the latest study on military women’s health actually matter?

Last month, the Defense Health Board reported there was a major flaw in the Military Health System: Its one-size-fits-all approach to health is leaving women behind.

The DHB set out a list of extensive recommendation for how to fix the problem and issued a stark reminder of how often women’s health is ignored in the military.

“The differential incidence of these conditions among active duty women have persisted despite 70 years of integration efforts and the creation of more than 10 advisory and decision-making groups, specifically created to improve active duty women’s health, fitness, safety, and performance,” the authors of the report stated. “The groups capably identified best practices and recommended their adoption. But, lacking authority and accountability, few of their recommendations have been implemented.”

This yearlong study, however, may actually make a difference. Peter Graves, a spokesman for the Defense Health Agency, said at last update, the cumulative concurrence and partial concurrence by DHA over the life of the board were 73% and 15%, respectively. Meaning the board’s recommendations might not fall by the wayside like many studies in the past.

“Recommendations will be evaluated in the light of the authority, direction, and control of the DHA,” Graves told Federal News Network. “Coordination and collaboration for identifying and minimizing practices that adversely impact and promulgating practices to benefit active duty women is a joint responsibility.”

That’s welcome news for people like Lucy Del Gaudio, a former active duty service member, sexual assault survivor and advocate for military’s women’s health.

“A lot of women would rather go off post and try to facilitate treatment in other avenues because they know they’re not going to get the fair treatment in their clinics on post,” she told Federal News Network. “I know a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable.”

Del Gaudio said much of the military and VA’s medical practices are “male-centric.”

“Sometimes if you go into a smaller clinic, they might not be equipped for a woman’s specific need,” she said.

Del Gaudio recounted experiences of women who had to be propped up on bedpans for gynecological examinations for lack of proper medical tools.

She said that takes a serious toll on retention, when women are constantly running into obstructions to care.

DHB said it wasn’t just care that was the issue.

Clothing and armor made for men cause issues for women, the lack of proper footwear and the need for better support through sports bras also contribute.

Access to contraceptive services and sexual education differs between services and influences the rate of unintended pregnancies, the board states.

There is also variability in screening protocols for eating disorders — a mental health issue that disproportionately affects women — which causes “stark differences” in the reported prevalence of diagnoses, the board said.

Those issues compounded with sexual harassment and assault, and the higher prevalence of women to leave the military for family reasons results in many fewer women staying in the service and reaching leadership positions.

DHB made a slew of recommendations. They include establishing an overarching office to approve recommendations related to women’s health, fitness safety and performance.

The office would focus on minimizing gender-associated differences in healthcare delivery, personnel, research, supply chains and policies. It would also look for traditional male-centric values within the culture that are harming health.

DHB also suggests looking into training programs.

“Basic training and ongoing fitness-for-duty evaluations have two foundational fitness components: health fitness standards that are gender-specific, and occupationally-focused fitness standards that should be gender-neutral,” the study authors state. “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for health fitness contributes to training injuries in a mixed-gender population.” — SM

Air Force considering coaches for future leaders

Put me in coach! The Air Force and the military as a whole have had trouble in recent years filling certain positions. That includes cyber jobs, maintainer positions and much more. But, sometimes all you need is a little coaching to get where you want to go.

The Air Force is conducting a pilot program that gives airmen certified coaches to work with at key points in their careers.

“The coach is there to give them ideas and feedback on how to improve themselves in executing their mission, leading people, managing the resources, improving the unit, and offering observations,” said Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services.

The pilot started with 30 people, some were generals, some were senior executive service, others were colonels or chief master sergeants.

“We gave them the opportunity over a six-month period to work with those coaches, have one-on-one sessions periodically,” Kelly said. “We left it to the coaches and the individuals to decide when they would talk when they would meet what they would cover.”

The Air Force is in the process of finishing up the pilot and getting feedback.

The service hopes to open up to coaching to 10,000 to 15,000 airmen who might be in key leadership positions and could benefit from the work.

“Based on the feedback, we’re pretty excited that it is definitely a helpful and needed tool,” Kelly said. “The participants, almost without exception, saw a benefit and saw that they had a better success rate, learned faster and found more success in the new positions as a result of having the coach.”

Pentagon reports $5B in improper payments to civilian workforce

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

Most newly-detected civilian pay discrepancies were due to missing documentation

The Defense Department’s latest financial statement shows the Pentagon made nearly $5 billion worth of improper payments in its civilian payroll accounts last year, a massive increase from previous years in which the department reported almost none.

In its annual financial report, released last week, DoD said the startling increase was mainly because of a “new sampling plan and testing methodology” financial management officials began implementing in the civilian pay accounts in 2020. But at least so far, those new methodologies appear to have generated more questions than answers as they unearthed billions of dollars in previously-undiscovered potential payment irregularities.

For the overwhelming majority of the $4.916 billion discovered to be improper in the civilian pay arena — 99.1% — auditors aren’t able to say whether they represent overpayments or underpayments. Instead, the department simply doesn’t have the documentation to show whether the payments were authorized at all.

Overall, the new tests showed that nearly 8% of the department’s outlays to its civilian workforce could be improper in one way or another, according to the new data. In 2019, prior to the new sampling and testing processes, the department estimated just 0.14% of its civilian payments were improper.

The newly-reported improper payments for civilians were a major driving factor in the total payment discrepancy rate across the department. In 2020, improper payments stood at 1.73% of DoD’s total spending, compared to 1.43% in 2019, representing an increase of $2.7 billion and raising DoD’s total estimated improper payment amount to $11.4 billion. More than $9 billion of that figure is categorized as “unknown,” meaning the department cannot say whether they were underpayments, overpayments, or, perhaps perfectly justified.

Another major driver of the “unknown” category is DoD’s military pay accounts. In 2019, when the department implemented a similar sampling and testing overhaul for those accounts, the improper payment rate for military pay rose from 6.95% to 7.25%, totaling $7.45 billion.

The department made some progress against that military pay error rate in 2020, but military pay still accounts for $5.2 billion of the department’s improper payments.

However, this year’s report marks the first time DoD’s financial report breaks improper military payments down by military service, and the problems appear to be overwhelmingly in the Army and Air Force, which reported error rates of 8.14% and 5.64%, respectively. Those two services were responsible for $5.1 billion in improper military payments; the Navy and Marine Corps made just $52 million.

And the same appears to be true for those newly-discovered improper payments in the civilian pay area. Although the report doesn’t break improper civilian payments down by DoD component, it does note that the Navy and Marine Corps have estimated improper payment rates of less than 1% in the civilian category.

Federal law requires agencies to publish corrective action plans whenever audits turn up estimated improper payments of $100 million or more in a particular spending category, and DoD crossed that threshold and published a new one for civilian pay in 2020.

The plan called for the department to accelerate post-payment reviews and identify points of contact for identifying improper payments in each DoD component by this month. By next month, the department is supposed to hold a civilian pay “entrance conference,” in part, to make sure “key stakeholders” understand what documentation is needed to support civilian payments.

Another milestone in the corrective action plan is set for next May, when the department will start developing monthly reports on its progress and how much documentation is still missing, and roll out a new software platform to collect data and documentation on civilian improper payments.

Aside from civilian pay, DoD still has significant improper payment problems in four other areas:

  • Military health benefits: Improper payment rate of 1.46%, or $339 million
  • Military retirement: Improper payment rate of 0.48%, or $352 million
  • Travel pay: Improper payment rate of 4.27%, or $315 million
  • Payments to contractors: Improper payment rate of 0.08%, or $307 million

But those categories do not suffer from missing documentation problems to nearly the degree DoD’s personnel pay accounts do. For more than 99% of the improper payments in those latter four areas, the department is at least able to tell whether they were overpayments or overpayments, theoretically letting officials chase down overpayments or make good on underpayments after the fact. —JS

Pentagon tells more employees to telework in response to rise in D.C.-area COVID cases

The Defense Department will once again ramp up coronavirus protective measures in place for employees at the Pentagon later this week in response to a resurgence of the virus nationwide, including in the National Capital Region.

Starting on Thanksgiving Day, the Pentagon reservation — which includes the nearby Mark Center and DoD-leased space — will move from Health Protection Condition Bravo to a new subcategory the department is calling “Bravo-Plus.”

It won’t mean a return to the full set of precautions officials implemented at the Pentagon in March, when they set HPCON Charlie. Those were relaxed in June, when the Pentagon downgraded itself to HPCON Bravo.

But under “Bravo-Plus,” the changes will include:

  • A target of 60% of employees teleworking, up from 20% under HPCON Bravo
  • Gatherings of more than 25 people are banned, compared to 50 people under HPCON Bravo
  • No more seating at Pentagon food courts, which will become take-out-only
  • 5%-15% of employees coming to work will be randomly screened with temperature checks and health questionnaires
  • Reduced capacity at the Pentagon Health Center

DoD Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman, who approved the new restrictions, said the two DoD-managed Armed Forces Retirement Homes in Washington and Gulfport, Mississippi, which also fall under her purview, will stay at HPCON Delta — DoD’s highest level of restrictions. —JS

Army rethinking sexual harassment and assault prevention program

The Army will take a hard look at its sexual assault and harassment prevention program after a serious of violent incidents at Ft. Hood in Texas and other bases.

In a video message posted on Twitter last week, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said he reviewed the preliminary findings of the Ft. Hood Review Committee and will require the Army to make serious changes to it Sexual Harassment Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) program.

“Recent cases and recent media coverage have hardened my belief that the Army’s SHARP program hasn’t achieved its mandate to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment by creating a climate that respects the dignity of every member of the Army family,” McCarthy said.

On Dec. 8, the Army will release the committee’s review with an action plan to address the recommendations.

“It is clear we have significant work to do to regain our soldiers’ trust in our SHARP program,” McCarthy said.

Much of the Army’s introspection about its sexual assault and harassment problem came after the harassment and murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen this summer. However, advocacy groups have been warning for years that sexual assault is a glaring problem in the military.

Guillen’s death sparked a worldwide movement of service members and veterans divulging their sexual harassment and assault stories.

Military sexual assault and harassment numbers are on the rise.

The inspector general for Army Forces Command visited Ft. Hood this summer. Soldiers told the office they trusted senior leaders to take sexual harassment seriously, but the junior leaders may not have the life experience or the military experience to deal with the situation as it was presented to them.

FORCECOM Inspector General Col. Patrick Wempe said his office noticed issues with SHARP.

“At Ft. Hood we observed the SHARP program needing to improve in certain areas, but one which units generally execute the standard,” Wempe said. “Soldiers reported a hesitancy to report SHARP incidents for several disparate reasons.”

The Army has made some adjustments this year to try to raise the alarm about people in possibly dangerous situations.

In October, the service announced that when soldiers do not show up for duty that they will be reported missing instead of jumping to the more disciplinary absent-without-leave status.

“Spec. Vanessa Guillen really affected all of us. Incredible soldier. We know her family and I think she touched every one of us. What happened to her was horrific,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said last month. “What we’re putting in place is basically a missing category, because that’s really — what happened to Vanessa Guillen; she was not absent without leave. But she wasn’t present for duty either. She was missing. We want to have a category that’s clear and unequivocal, that if you’re not present for duty, you’re missing. Then the intent is for that unit, and for the Army, to be looking for that soldier.” — SM

More than 50,000 soldiers have a chance to get new benefits

Tens of thousands of Army veterans who were less-than-honorably discharged will now get a second chance to receive benefits.

After lengthy court battle, soldiers who have less-than-honorable discharges after Oct. 7, 2001, relating to mental health or sexual trauma will have their discharges reviewed by the Army.

“This settlement will ensure that the Army reconsiders thousands of decisions involving Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans with a less-than-fully-honorable discharge,” according to a statement by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Service Clinic.

The clinic provided legal counsel for the class action suit against the Army.

“Additionally, the Army will adopt procedural reforms, such as a universal telephonic hearing program, that will facilitate access to discharge upgrades for this and future generations,” the statement continued.”

The Army Discharge Review Board and the plaintiffs reached a settlement last Wednesday, which will automatically consider thousands of cases dating back to April 2011. Former soldiers discharged before that will receive notice that they may reapply for benefits.

The Army also agreed to make other changes to the board’s process. There will be additional training for board members and staff, enhanced notices to veterans of legal and medical services that might assist their applications, and more detailed documentation requirements that the ADRB must follow in any written denials.

The new telephonic hearings option is particularly important because now former soldiers will not have to travel to Washington to appear in person for discharge upgrade hearings.

“This is a watershed vindication of veterans’ rights,” said plaintiff Steve Kennedy, who served in Iraq and is a founder of the Connecticut chapter of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Not only will this have a practical impact on the lives of thousands of veterans, but this settlement will also signal that the federal government must be held accountable to its word to veterans.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) added, “I am elated by this historic victory — resulting from a relentless fight for justice. After three years of tireless effort from a great team led by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic and thousands of Army veterans, we can celebrate this significant step forward. Heroic veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war deserve support and treatment, not the stain and stigma of a less-than-honorable discharge. I’m proud to see that this injustice has been righted for an entire generation of Army servicemen and women.” — SM

New SPACECOM for Marines, headquarters location coming soon

It’s been an exciting time to be a space command lately. The Marine Corps set up its own service-specific space command and the Air Force is honing in on where it will headquarter U.S. Space Command next year.

Marine Corps Forces Space Command is now operational, and being led by Maj. Gen. Matthew Glavy.

The command was created from the existing Marine space experts who were previously stationed with U.S. Strategic Command.

MARFORSPACE will “focus on providing space operational support to the Fleet Marine Force while building a convergence capability to increase warfighter lethality,” according to a release from the Marine Corps.

“We have an incredible opportunity to create a synergy across the information environment based on our unique position within the naval and joint force,” Glavy said. “Space and cyber are critical capabilities in the information environment that, when brought together, can provide a competitive advantage. Convergence requires flexible and interconnected teams focused on solving hard problems with speed. We cannot be successful in these technology-heavy domains without prioritizing people, ideas and things in that order.”

Glavy will be dual hatted as the leader of Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command as well.

On a larger scale, the Air Force announced six possible locations where SPACECOM headquarters may be located. The candidates are:

  • Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico,
  • Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska,
  • Patrick Air Force Base in Florida,
  • Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado,
  • Port San Antonio in Texas, and
  • Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama.

SPACECOM is temporarily headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force considered 24 communities before narrowing it down to six.

“The Department of the Air Force evaluated each location and will now conduct both virtual and on-site visits at each candidate location to assess which location is best suited to host the U.S. Space Command Headquarters,” said Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek. “This assessment will be based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense.”

The Air Force plans to pick a location early next year. — SM

After 70 years of integration, military health system still isn’t addressing women’s needs

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 health is failing women, study says

A prominent government panel says the Defense Department is failing to provide proper medical care to military women, potentially harming the chance to retain talented female service members.

Even though some military services have made recent changes — like offering refrigerators for women to store breast milk and trying to find better ways for women pilots to use the bathroom in-flight — a yearlong study by the Defense Health Board suggests the Pentagon is not providing proper medical care to women, and therefore wasting money and hurting readiness.

Despite multiple studies going back decades, the military’s one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare leaves women challenged with musculoskeletal injuries, reproductive and genitourinary issues and improper mental health care.

“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 conclude.

A lot of problems stem from clothing and equipment. Clothing and armor made for men cause issues for women, the lack of proper footwear and the need for better support through sports bras also contribute.

Access to contraceptive services and sexual education differs between services and influences the rate of unintended pregnancies, the board states.

There is also variability in screening protocols for eating disorders — a mental health issue that disproportionately affects women — which causes “stark differences” in the reported prevalence of diagnoses, the board said.

Those issues compounded with sexual harassment and assault, and the higher prevalence of women to leave the military for family reasons results in many fewer women staying in the service and reaching leadership positions.

Previous studies have fallen on ears unwilling to listen, according to the board.

“The differential incidence of these conditions among active duty women have persisted despite 70 years of integration efforts and the creation of more than 10 advisory and decision-making groups, specifically created to improve active duty women’s health, fitness, safety, and performance,” the authors of the report stated. “The groups capably identified best practices and recommended their adoption. But, lacking authority and accountability, few of their recommendations have been implemented.”

To remedy the situation, the health board recommends DoD establish an overarching office to approve recommendations related to women’s health, fitness safety and performance.

The office would focus on minimizing gender-associated differences in healthcare delivery, personnel, research, supply chains and policies. It would also look for traditional male-centric values within the culture that are harming health.

DHB also suggests looking into training programs.

“Basic training and ongoing fitness-for-duty evaluations have two foundational fitness components: health fitness standards that are gender-specific, and occupationally-focused fitness standards that should be gender-neutral,” the study authors state. “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for health fitness contributes to training injuries in a mixed-gender population.”

DHB suggests gender-specific aerobic and strength conditioning before going into the military to reduce the risk of injury and says DoD should implement two level fitness assignments. One with gender specific standards and the other with gender-neutral occupation- and skill-specific standards.

DoD is already working on one recommendation by embedding licensed sports medicine professions within units to promote best practices for training and injury recovery.

The board also says DoD needs to buy gender-customized equipment to reduce injuries and improve readiness.

Another recommendation deals with pregnancy.

“Unintended pregnancy is approximately 50% higher for active duty women than for civilian women, and is approximately the same as the incidence of planned pregnancy among active duty women,” the authors wrote. “The occurrence of unplanned pregnancies creates significant adverse health and major mission impacts. Studies show that long-acting reversible contraception counseling and walk-in contraceptive clinics decrease unintended pregnancies.”

The board says DoD needs better contraceptive education, including a sexual education campaign for all service members, contraception decision support and promotion of long-term contraceptives.

Other recommendations include a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, better post-partum fitness training and better mental health screening. — SM

Miller’s appointment as acting DoD secretary was probably legal, but not what Congress intended

President Trump’s selection of an official from outside the Pentagon to serve as the new acting secretary of Defense was within the law, but it also wasn’t what Congress had in mind the last time it visited the issues of DoD’s civilian leadership structure.

That’s according to Arnold Punaro, who served as staff director to Sen. Sam Nunn while he and Sen. Barry Goldwater were working to move the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act through the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In an interview, Punaro told me there’s “no question” that Congress intended for the deputy secretary of Defense to be next in line upon the secretary’s departure. Though he conceded the language of Goldwater-Nichols could have been clearer on that point.

“We wanted to enhance civilian control of the military, and we put a provision in that said in the absence of the secretary of Defense, the deputy secretary shall be the acting secretary and able to exercise all the statutory powers of the secretary, because we did not want the Vacancies Act to be used. We wanted to make sure that the person would be someone that had gone through the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation process and be up to speed on everything that was going on,” he said. “I wish I’d been smarter when we wrote that law, because the Justice Department and White House Counsel have opined over the years that the Vacancies Act takes precedence. Unless [Congress] specifically said Title 10 takes precedence over the Vacancies Act, it does not. So the president used the Vacancy Act legally. Whether it was a good idea or not, I’ll leave that to others.”

The Vacancies Act — last updated in its modern incarnation by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act in 1998, also sets an agency’s “first assistant” — in this case the deputy secretary – as the presumed acting secretary, unless there’s an agency-specific statute saying otherwise. But it also gives the president the discretion to appoint an official from another department to be acting secretary, as long as that person has been confirmed by the Senate for their current role.

That’s what the president did a week ago, when he named Christopher Miller, the recently-confirmed director of the National Counterterrorism Center as acting secretary. Miller had previously served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and countering terrorism.

Miller’s initial message to the DoD workforce seemed to indicate counterterrorism would remain a focus area during what’s expected to be a short tenure as acting secretary.

“We remain committed to finishing the war that Al Qaida brought to our shores in 2001. This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating Al Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” he wrote in a brief letter to the department on Thursday.

In a seemingly-contradictory passage, he added: “We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

Without criticizing Miller specifically, Punaro said Congress needs to amend Title 10 — the section of U.S. Code that governs DoD — to ensure an Defense secretary appointment can’t be made from outside the normal line of succession again.

“We thought we had prohibited that. But the modern Vacancies Act passed after 1986, and we should have spotted it and gone back and amended that provision,” said Punaro, who is now chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association. “I certainly as an individual — not somebody with any authority or anything — and certainly going to be talking to the Armed Services Committee next year about fixing this.” —JS

Pentagon will start thinking ahead about parts obsolescence

Across the military services, officials in charge of maintenance are spending a lot of time thinking about how to buy or replicate hard-to-find parts and other materials whose original suppliers no longer exist.

But a new Defense Department instruction aims to make sure the acquisition and sustainment community isn’t facing the same problem decades from now. Going forward, new weapons systems will need to have a long-term plan to identify the potential for parts to become obsolete, and how those problems will be mitigated down the road.

The new approach – called “diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages management” (DMSMS), in DoD parlance, tells the military services and other Defense organizations to draw up a DMSMS strategy “a soon as feasible” once a new program is authorized. The strategy needs to consider how future program managers for that system will deal with material shortages and obsolete parts across its entire lifecycle.

It’s the first time since 1974 the department has published a new policy on how to deal with parts obsolescence, according to George Mason University’s Center on Government Contracting, which notes that 70% of electronics in military systems are already obsolete by the time a system is fielded.

GMU is hosting an event with DoD officials to explain the new policy on Dec. 2. —JS

USO offering remote job training during COVID

People may not be able to go into the office for work, but the USO is still trying to help transitioning service members find jobs.

This week the service member-support organization is providing webinars along with corporate sponsors and industry experts to help troops leaving the military put their best foot forward when searching for a new occupation.

“This is part of our larger Pathfinder Transition Program,” Christopher Plamp, senior vice president of operations, programs and entertainment at USO, told Federal News Network. “Because of COVID we’ve been doing a lot of webinars and we’re combining them together and putting them in a week of focus.”

The webinars will be hosted by people like Vincent Vargas, an Army veteran and actor, who will talk about the entertainment industry.

There will also be webinars about blogging, women empowerment and vocations like plumbing.

“Transitioning out of the military is always a difficult task,” Plamp said. “I once had a Marine who told me the hardest day in the Marine Corps was a day that he left, because his life was changing. You go through the military, and you end up coming out. You don’t necessarily have an idea of where you go. Somewhere over 60% of the people from my experience, who are getting out, want to go do something different than what they did when they were in the military.”

USO tries to teach troops resume building skills, interviewing skills and other talents that will help them succeed in life after the military.

“There’s more than 200,000 service members from the active duty force transitioning every year, about another 50,000 out of the Guard and reserves,” Plamp said. “Then there’s a very large number, in the hundreds of thousands, of military spouses who are always looking for work as they move from location to location, so this problem continues to remain forefront in a lot of people’s minds.”

Plamp said USO has about 700 to 800 people sign up for transition services a month. — SM

Military OneSource is now handheld

Service members and their families will have much easier access to resources provided by the Defense Department with a new mobile app connected to Military OneSource.

The My Military OneSource mobile app is available on Google Play and the Apple App Store and provides many services troops would usually have to use a web portal to access.

Through the app, users can get information on:

  • Child care options
  • Relationship counseling
  • Domestic violence awareness
  • Parenting tips
  • A Morale, Welfare and Recreation Program digital library
  • Tips for communicating in a long-distance relationship
  • Moving and housing
  • Tax services
  • Confidential help
  • Financial and legal assistance
  • Education and employment
  • Confidential non-medical counseling
  • Health and wellness
  • Benefits finder
  • Recreation, travel and shopping
  • Installation program directory

The purpose of Military OneSource is to put as many resources as possible in one place, so people have an easier time finding what they need, Erika Slaton, Defense Department associate director for military community support programs said last week. The app makes it more convenient when users are away from their computers and are only carrying a smartphone.

Military OneSource offers services to about 5.2 million users. DoD tested the app with more than 300 service members and spouses.

“To ensure the My Military OneSource mobile app continues to meet the needs of the military community, we will evaluate user feedback to help inform ongoing updates and enhancements, as well as new features,” Slaton said. — SM

Army’s 18th Airborne Corps picks first winner in innovation challenge

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.

A new app straight from a soldier’s brain manages ranges

Welcome to the Dragon’s Lair — or, in other words, the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps’ newest innovation challenge, which just crowned its first ever winner last week.

The Army was trying to breathe a little inventiveness into how to handles land use and ranges, so it invented the Dragon Innovation Challenge — think Shark Tank, but without Mark Cuban and with camouflage.

Maj. Evan Adams won the challenge for his application that brings together Army range management to make it run smoother.

“Ranges are managed by what we call the Range Facility Management Support System,” Adams told Federal News Network. “It’s like a centralized website that controls land and range utilization. My idea was to combine all the capabilities we have today, which are satellite imagery messaging on phones cameras we have — we have all these things in our pocket, but we don’t use them.”

The RangeFinder mobile application helps people schedule ranges, book weapons, issue emergencies and conduct other functions.

Adams beat out five other contestants in front of a panel of six judges. In total, nearly 90 ideas were submitted.

“The purpose of the thing was to have the people who are actually doing things and see the solutions at their level bring their ideas to the three-star command and corps level,” said Master Sergeant Roy Smith, one of the panelists.

Adams said he worked for hours outside of his job to develop the app.

“I had some conversations with neighbors and friends and even coworkers,” he said. “Everybody has a piece of that idea. I can’t say I did all of this myself, that would be absolutely false.”

The corps’ Dragon Innovation Program follows in the footsteps of the Air Force’s Spark Tank and Squadron Innovation Program to bring new ideas into the Army. The program gets its name from the Airborne’s mascot, which is a dragon. It is open to the 93,000 soldiers and their families affiliated with the corps.

“People out there have ideas,” said Brig Gen. Robert Ritchie, assistant commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps, in a statement. “They see inefficiencies in their everyday lives and they develop solutions. Unfortunately, these ideas are captive to the Army system. Let’s unchain the animal spirits of ideas and let them roam in the wild!”

The premise of the program is to put out a new challenge every three months for soldiers and their families to try to solve, since they have the most hands on experience with the problem.

“It’s an awesome platform for anybody to put out an idea, whether it be something super high tech or just a simple policy change or just a nugget of information that we can use in the future,” Adams said. Soldiers have these great ideas and a lot of times they don’t have the platform to really communicate it.”

The Army will now work with Adams to further develop the app. Adams will also get a four-day weekend as part of his prize. — SM

New ideas for an old pilot problem

The military is still dealing with a pilot shortage and last time the Air Force checked they were down about 2,100 people in the cockpit.

Even though the Air Force thinks it may finally be getting a handle on the problem, it will still take years to rectify.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies released a series of recommendations last week that it thinks the Air Force should follow in order to improve pilot retention.

“I think getting people started out, increasing their agency at the beginning of their careers, helping them get on the path that they want to be on and increasing their satisfaction will gain more years of service,” said Tobias Switzer, author of the report.

Switzer first recommends empowering squadron leaders in the aviation bonus (AvB) process. Right now, some pilots are getting more than $100,000 to extend their service commitments. But it’s the broad and faceless Air Force that is making that offer.

“Squadron commanders should be at the center of retention efforts,” Switzer wrote. “The existing system, in which the Air Force makes its AvB offer via an impersonal email from a far-away program office, does not convey respect. If the message came from a trusted leader, knowledgeable about a pilot’s aspirations and skills, it would. Squadron commanders are also best positioned to change the Air Force’s culture surrounding pilot retention through public recognition of those who commit to extended service.”

Switzer thinks it will take more than just a personal touch though. He also thinks the bonus offers need to come to pilots earlier.

This suggestion would need some help from Congress, since current law restricts military services from offering contract bonuses until the pilot is one year from completing their initial commitment.

“The most advantageous time to offer an AvB retention contract would be when a pilot attains an advanced qualification, such as an instructor pilot,” Switzer wrote. “Depending on the aircraft and mission, most pilots will be able to accomplish this qualification within five to six years, marking them as safe and effective. An instructor pilot can affect broader aviation operations by teaching junior pilots and commanding multi-ship missions. Achieving these career milestones demonstrates continued and future value to the Air Force.”

The final recommendation offers a new marketplace for pilots that doesn’t marry them to one aircraft right away.

Currently, new pilots pick their aircraft and assignment locations through a preference list. The top students get the highest preference.

“At this early phase of a pilot’s career, it does not matter to the Air Force which aircraft pilots fly, or where,” Switzer wrote. “So long as the new pilot is qualified for the duty and there are sufficient junior pilots at each unit, the Air Force’s requirements are satisfied. During pilot training, the Air Force has the most flexibility to accommodate the wants of its young, undifferentiated pilots.”

Switzer offers creating an exchange where pilots can trade future service for the aircraft or location they want.

“Using a combination of merit and a pilot’s willingness to contract for additional years of service in the allocation of aircraft and basing assignments would improve long-term retention and future force stability,” Switzer wrote. “Facilitating higher agency to pilots willing to serve longer commitments increases their satisfaction.” — SM

Army’s push for augmented reality goggles might extend to dogs, too

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.

Army fits canines with future technologies

Mater, the Rottweiler, wearing AR goggles. (Photo courtesy Army Research Office)

The military is making big investments in things like augmented reality for training, but those investments aren’t only for humans.

The Army Research Office is working on augmented reality goggles for dogs that are trained to sniff out explosives and landmines.

The hope is that the goggles will help the canines with commands to inspect specific objects without putting their handler in danger.

“Getting dogs to do very specific things, to look at them or sniff them or to go through a specific door sometimes can be complicated with verbal commands, because they’re rather nonspecific,” said Stephen Lee, an ARO senior scientist. “What we decided was let’s put a feeler out for augmented reality goggles for military working dogs. Dogs have started wearing a lot of the rec specs goggles. Can we take and put ideas like Google Glass or whatnot into the goggles and guide the dog off leash around corners in buildings when we’re not there and also call the dog back?”

A.J. Peper answered the call when he started the company Command Sight. He trained his dog to respond to a laser pointer and then outfitted the dog with goggles. The goggles project a laser dot that is controlled by a smartphone.

“We are still in the beginning research stages of applying this technology to dogs, but the results from our initial research are extremely promising,” Peper said. “Much of the research to date has been conducted with my Rottweiler, Mater. His ability to generalize from other training to working through the AR goggles has been incredible. We still have a way to go from a basic science and development perspective before it will be ready for the wear and tear our military dogs will place on the units.”

The dogs are also outfitted with headphones and cameras so they can hear commands and handlers can see what the dog sees.

“What’s very interesting if you look at the canine and how it perceives the world, it’s very differently from us and it’s heavily reliant on the human handler because the dog can’t see the horizon,” Lee said. “If you have a dog in three feet of grass, the dog sees grass, it can’t see above the grass, but yet you can so it’s often responding to your commands.”

That’s how the Army hopes the goggles will work for dogs.

“If you really want the dog in a specific spot, maybe to look at that one backpack out of five backpacks, you can tell the dog to search and it might run around the room and search,” Lee said. “However, if you really want to get to that one backpack and rest on that and look at that, you need a visual cue. The laser pointer and the visual cue can actually get you to that point, which we again we couldn’t do otherwise if we’re not in the room with the dog. This augmented reality should provide that precision control.”

The research is currently in phase two of a Small Business Innovative Research contract. — SM

Senators want to broaden National Guard cybersecurity mission

A bipartisan duo of senators are trying to make the National Guard more available to states and local government to bolster cybersecurity for their critical infrastructure.

Governors can currently call up the Guard for certain missions; however, cybersecurity is limited to certain projects.

The bill introduced by Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) would loosen those limitations and allow the Guard to protect the cyber assets of critical infrastructure as described by the 2001 Critical Infrastructures Protection Act.

“Cyber attacks can jeopardize our national security, shut down electrical grids, and threaten the operations of our hospitals and schools — we must ensure that the National Guard can help with these types of threats just like any other threat that states face,” said Hassan. “I’ve heard directly from Granite State leaders about how helpful our National Guard can be in increasing our cyber resiliency, and this bipartisan bill will make it easier for all states to fully use the impressive talents of National Guard members to help prevent cyberattacks before they happen.”

In the past the National Guard has provided cybersecurity assistance to states for election security, and also for state and local government networks that were hacked.

Some states have pilot Cyber Mission Assurance Teams. Their job is to assess vulnerabilities to infrastructure that supplies needs to federal assets.

“Ohio, Washington and Hawaii have teams,” former National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel said last November. “What they do is they are able to check and mitigate cyber issues with federal installations that require assistance from critical infrastructure. A federal installation needs power and water to keep it running. This mission assurance team has been able to assess their vulnerabilities and perhaps come online and mitigate cyber attacks to assure that the federal mission of that installation can continue.” — SM

Financially struggling soldiers may see loans turn to grants

Soldiers who took out zero-interest loans with Army Emergency Relief to help make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic may have a nice end-of-year surprise.

The 78-year-old institution, which helps soldiers during financial struggles, is changing $1 million of its coronavirus-related loans to grants that do not need to be paid back.

“We’ve done a little over a million dollars in COVID support across the Army — about $300,000 of that was already a grant to begin with, another $700,000 of that approximately was in the form of a loan,” said Raymond Mason, AER directors. “What we do is we go back afterwards and review the case. We’re in the process of converting the vast majority of those loans into grants. We’ll let them know, ‘Hey, you don’t have to pay off the rest of this loan, we’re going to make it a grant, which of course is well received.’ The whole idea is look, families, soldiers, they’re struggling with COVID. And even though it’s a zero interest loan, we don’t want to add to their challenges and their financial hardship.”

AER is currently in a financially sound place where it doesn’t need to take in extra donations or draw deeper into investments in order to provide the grants. Part of that is because some corporate sponsors donated to AER to help with the pandemic.

In addition to the pandemic loans, AER is working on transitioning another million dollars of loans to grants, those were given to soldiers who needed emergency travel funds during hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.

Mason said a lot of the pandemic loans went to military families where spouses lost their jobs.

“Families built their lifestyle and their monthly budget around those two incomes,” he said. “All of a sudden a lot of spouses were either laid off or the company went under during COVID. I would say the vast majority of the need we’ve seen has been for loss of spouse pay.”

Military spouses were already facing a 24% unemployment rate before the pandemic. About 17% of spouses reported losing their jobs as a result of the economic fallout, according to a new survey by Blue Star Families.

Mason said a lot of the loans went to E-5 and E-6 soldiers because those service members are moving off bases and have children and therefore have more bills to pay.

Surprisingly, AER has had less requests for loans than usual. In the spring, AER was loaning about a million dollars a month. It is now back up to its normal numbers of about $5 million a month.

AER loans about $70 million a year.

Mason said he thinks the dip in loan requests was due to soldiers being reluctant to ask for help.

“It does concern me, soldiers are taught from day one, ‘You’re tough, you can stand on your own two feet, you can make it and all that’s true,” Mason said. “But it builds a little bit of an issue of ‘I don’t want to ask for help.’ And I always say, asking for help is a sign of strength.”

Mason said some soldiers fear asking for help will affect their career, he said that is simply not true. — SM

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