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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Space National Guard still up in the air but lawmakers want to move forward

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

The issue of whether there should be a Space National Guard has gone back and forth between Defense officials and lawmakers for the past couple years. Now, legislators are making moves to establish a part-time component for the new service.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are introducing a bill in both houses to create a Space National Guard. The effort led by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) would ensure a pipeline for guardians to work part-time and move between active duty and the Guard.

It would eliminate the need for the Space Force to route funding between it and the Air Force, and would allow the Space Force more control over Guard members who work on space functions.

Currently there are more than 1,000 Air National Guard members who perform space missions.

“Without a National Guard component for Space Force, we risk losing many talented individuals who want to keep serving their country and their states after they leave active duty, and that is simply unacceptable,” Feinstein said. “Creating a Space Force National Guard would also save money and ensure a smoother process in the event we need to activate personnel. Not establishing a Space National Guard was a mistake when Space Force was created, and this bill will remedy that.”

Not everyone is convinced that a Space National Guard is the best idea, however. Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tweeted last Friday that she thinks the component is a bad idea.

“Why would a governor ever need satellite operators to support their state/local issues? The argument that people are already doing this is not a good one — sounds like a realignment issue and not a ‘Let’s just create another bureaucratic org,’” she wrote. “What happened to the Space Force being new/revolutionary/unique? What happened to redefining how we support the space mission? Seems to me like Feinstein and Rubio are forcing the opposite values that the USSF was established on to get more money for their states.”

The Space Force itself isn’t so sure it wants a traditional Guard component. Service officials floated the idea of a “space component” last month during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, which would be a hybrid structure merging full- and part-time guardians.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond described it as the service’s number one legislative priority.

“You could keep the Guard units in the Air National Guard and have the Air National Guard continue to provide support,” Raymond said. “Option two is you could take the men and women out of the Air National Guard and set up a separate Space National Guard. Or you can take those capabilities out of the Guard totally and put them in this one component.” — SM

Air Force missing out on DoD’s colorless money software pilots

As part of its 2023 budget, the Air Force is making a serious effort at getting in on the Defense Department’s effort to prove that budgeting for software development is very, very different from budgeting for traditional weapons systems.

As of now, the Air Force is the only military service that’s not participating in DoD’s Software and Digital Technology Pilot Program at all. And the vast majority of the Pentagon’s overall proposed increase for 2023 within the pilot effort is explained by Air Force requests to change that. The service has teed up eight potential candidates for Congressional consideration.

Under the program sometimes called the “Budget Activity 8” pilot, DoD components are allowed to use “colorless” money for software development, without having to worry about whether the phase of development they’re in should be funded by R&D, procurement or operations accounts. Critics have long argued that funding construct, intended for weapons system development, makes no sense for software and simply bogs down efforts toward agile development.

Andrew Hunter, the recently-confirmed assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said his discovery that the Air Force wasn’t participating in the pilot caused him “dismay” when he assumed the new role.

“But it’s not from lack of interest,” he said during a conference hosted by the Naval Postgraduate School last week. “The Air Force submitted several candidates [in past years] to be part of the software pilot program, but we were unsuccessful in the competition for being selected. I’m rueful that we aren’t doing it. And it’s maybe slightly ironic, because I’d like to think the Air Force was a leading voice in making the case for the flexibilities required to do effective software development.”

The pilot program is only in its second year, but so far, Congress hasn’t shown overwhelming enthusiasm toward expanding it. Lawmakers didn’t approve the addition of any new programs between fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022. The House Appropriations Committee’s version of the 2022 bill would have expanded the program, but its Senate counterpart never approved a Defense spending bill of its own.

Overall, for 2023, the Defense budget proposal would place $1.785 billion worth of DoD software programs in the BA-8 pilot, up from the $742 million Congress approved for this year. The vast majority of that increase would come from the Air Force’s proposed additions, which total $946 million.

The programs include:

  • Strategic Mission Planning and Execution System ($100 million)
  • Air & Space Operations Center ($178 million)
  • Defense Enterprise Accounting and Management System ($136 million)
  • Distributed Cyber Warfare Operations ($37 million)
  • Air Force Defensive Cyber Systems ($241 million)
  • All Domain Common Platform ($190 million)
  • Air Force Weather Programs ($58 million)
  • Electronic Warfare Integrated Reprogramming ($6 million)


USS George Washington deaths on Austin’s radar

The tragic events aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington are catching the attention of the nation’s top Defense official.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers last week he was concerned about the three suicides aboard the ship last month and the five in total over the past year.

“This is a really, really important issue,” Austin told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. “That’s why we’re asking you for, in this budget, additional resources to help us provide greater access to our troops which includes telehealth care opportunities as well.”

About 400 sailors were living aboard the USS George Washington as it is being repaired in Newport News, Virginia. The Navy is now moving more than 250 sailors off the ship for mental health purposes and is looking at moving all the sailors to short.

“There are choices that have been made or will be made in the future in terms of how billet sailors when that repair is ongoing,” Austin said. Whether or not we made the right choices is left to be seen. Certainly there’s a problem there, we got to understand what that problem was a bit more and then we have to figure out what to do to ensure that we don’t have these kinds of problems in the future.”

Austin is waiting on two investigations from the Navy on the climate and command aboard the ship. The maintenance is taking longer than expected and the ship will be docked for another year. It was supposed to be finished this year.

“For hundreds of those sailors they have no access to housing or a car and they’re stuck on a ship. This is really demoralizing,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said. “I am troubled by the Defense submission on the Navy because I see it getting worse. I just wanted to point a flashlight at this part of the budget and say, we got to do something and I’m not sure what it is.”

There have been seven deaths in the last year among the 2,700 sailors working aboard the ship as it is overhauling at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia.

Five of those deaths are apparent suicides, three of which were in the space of one week last month, leading the service and others to wonder about the mental health among the Nimitz-class carrier.

The Navy is already taking some steps to address mental health concerns. It has embossed a 13-person special psychiatric rapid intervention team to provide services from April 16-19. The ship also added an additional clinical psychologist and social worker. Sailors are being given expedited appointments with mental health services on shore in Hampton Roads. Telehealth options are also available.

NBC News reported that the Navy is offering other morale boosting activities like a video game competition and soccer tournament.

However, sailors told NBC that morale remains low and some feel that the efforts are too little, too late.

Late last month, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) sent a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday asking for answers on conditions and climate aboard the ship.

“I am calling on the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, and CNO Gilday to provide the House Armed Services Committee and members of Congress with a full accounting of what steps are being taken to address command climate, safety concerns, mental health, and other issues that may have contributed to this tragic loss of life on USS George Washington,” she said. “Every member of our armed forces must be treated with respect, and we have an obligation to ensure that our active-duty personnel on USS George Washington and around the world are being heard and supported while serving our country.” — SM

Republicans want to know the cost of inflation on 2023 Defense budget

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.

While the Biden administration is asking for $773 billion for 2023, that number may not go as far as hoped.

The Defense Department says it finished up its planning for 2023 before inflation rates rose and before Russia invaded Ukraine causing oil prices to spike.

According to DoD, it assumed a 2.3% inflation rate when the budget was created, however current rates are more than three times that level.

The top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are curious as to what effect the current inflation rate will have on the military’s buying power next year.

“The inflation we are experiencing is effectively a 5% to 8% cut to the department’s buying power, which could amount to between $20 billion to $30 billion in unfunded costs in fiscal year 2022 alone, not to mention lost buying power in fiscal year 2021 and potential lost buying power in fiscal year 2023,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Attached to the letter are 23 questions they want answered by April 15.

Those include: Has DoD appointed an official to lead inflation-related effects? Does departmental leadership have a regularized meeting schedule to discuss inflationary effects on departmental budgets? What major defense acquisition programs and middle-tier acquisition programs have seen the most and least inflation in the above time periods, and why do you believe these programs are experiencing these rates? And what changes in behavior is DoD observing from the defense industrial base due primarily to the inflation spike?

DoD officials say they are keeping an eye on inflation.

“We’re seeing inflationary pressure here in 2022,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said last week. “We just had the omnibus pass. That omnibus did not yet take account of inflation in 2022. We’ll be working with Congress through the summer on how this year lands and how it affects service members.” — SM

Congress weighs in on basic needs allowance

Congress created a way to monetarily help struggling service members and their families in the latest defense authorization act. Now lawmakers are chiming in on how the Pentagon can best use that authority.

A mixture of legislators from the House Armed Services Committee and the House Agriculture Committee sent three recommendations to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, which they think will best serve people in the military.

Perhaps the most powerful of these recommendations is that the Defense Department exclude basic allowance for housing (BAH) from consideration as income for determining if service members need a basic needs allowance.

“We encourage you to utilize this authority to the greatest extent possible and to exempt as much of the BAH as possible for as many service members as possible,” the lawmakers wrote to Austin.

BAH has proven to complicate the ability for service members to get benefits in the past. The government takes BAH into account when deciding if families should receive SNAP benefits, sometimes leaving low-income military families out.

“The Agriculture Department counts this housing allowance toward your income, despite the fact that the IRS does not treat it as income and other federal subsidy programs do not treat it as income,” Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, told Federal News Network in April. “We see this as a glitch. What it does is misrepresent service members’ income so they cannot qualify for SNAP despite the fact that that money is actually ongoing for housing costs and cannot be spent on food.”

The Agriculture Department ran a study on military food security, marking only the second academic look at military food issues.

“There’s really two key findings that are really important to focus on here. The first is that one in three active duty soldiers in our sample were classified as marginally food insecure,” said Matthew Rabbit, an economist at the USDA Economic Research Service. “The second key finding here is that the mental health of our service members is key to their long term connection to the military and the wellbeing of their families. Given that we find the service members’ mental health is associated with their food insecurity; addressing food insecurity may be one way to improve these outcomes.”

Marginally food insecure encompasses individuals who report any indications of compromised economic access to food among themselves and their families, which are classified as having marginal, low or very low food security according to the Agriculture Department’s food security status classification system.

Congress created the basic needs allowance to ensure service members were able to put food on the table.

Another recommendation by lawmakers include an opt-out option for service members who do not want to receive the funds. Finally, the letter asks DoD to certify eligibility for the allowance annually to reduce administrative burdens. — SM

At least DoD 758 sites chosen for renaming

One year into its work, the committee advising the Defense Department on changing the names of military property honoring Confederate officers has identified 758 different streets, buildings and bases that need to be considered.

The Naming Commission list of properties it will consider between now and October will go through a test to determine: Whether their names commemorate the Confederacy, and if a recommendation is warranted for renaming or removal.

A vast majority of the items are located in the cultural south with only a few exceptions for New York, Japan, Germany, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Washington State and Washington D.C.

Items on the link include Lee Road on Ft. Belvoir, named after Robert E. Lee; Fort Hood, which is named after John Bell Hood, a Confederate general; and Fort Polk, named after Confederate general Leonidas Polk.

The Naming Commission is made up of eight members including former Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller, former Navy Adm. Michelle Howard and Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.).

Its goal is “providing naming, renaming, and removal recommendations to Congress for all Department of Defense items that commemorate the Confederate States of America or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America,” according to the commission’s website.

The commission has already deliberated of thousands of possible names to replace the current ones. It has narrowed the list down to about 100 names including Dwight Eisenhower, Harriet Tubman, Colin Powell and Felix Conde-Falcón. — SM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Force going for digital fitness instead of testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DHA dropping the ball on screening, treatment for alcohol abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress taps brakes on DoD project to reform IT funding

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.

Last week’s passage of an omnibus spending bill eliminated the threat of a full-year continuing resolution and gave the Defense budget a nearly 4.7% spending increase. But lawmakers were less generous when it came to the matter of expanding a program meant to test major reforms to how DoD funds technology modernization.

The final agreement rejected the Pentagon’s request to significantly expand what’s known as the Software and Digital Technology Pilot Program in 2022. The pilot, in short, lets major IT programs fund development using a single “color of money,” rather than trying to wedge their budgets into the R&D, procurement and operations accounts that were originally designed for major weapons systems.

Congress initially allowed DoD to test the concept with eight technology programs as part of the 2021 appropriations bill. And the department will still be allowed to continue proving its case — that a single color of money doesn’t diminish Congressional oversight — with those same programs. But DoD had asked for permission to add five new programs to the pilot this year.

The House Appropriations Committee had okayed nearly all of them in its version of the 2022 budget. At the committee level, the sole exception was also the department’s boldest: The Navy had proposed to move all 2022 spending for its Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN) contract, nearly $1 billion, into the pilot.

But the Senate Appropriations Committee never passed its own version of the bill, one possible explanation for why the final omnibus took a more cautious approach to expanding the program.

Besides NGEN, the Pentagon had also requested to move $186 million in funding for the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center into the pilot, plus three Air Force programs: Strategic Mission Planning and Execution System, Air and Space Operations Center, and Defense Enterprise Accounting and Management System.

Those programs’ omission from the omnibus leaves the Air Force with no participation in the colorless money pilot, though it does still include the Space Force’s Kobayashi Maru program, which was added last year.

Officials in DoD’s technology and acquisition communities have long seen the weapons-centric approach to funding as a barrier to the military’s adoption of modern concepts like continuous software delivery and DevSecOps, since those approaches are almost antithetical to the idea that a software project can be categorized as in the “research” or “procurement” or “operations and maintenance” stages that correspond to a hardware system’s normal lifecycle.

“[Software] doesn’t behave like a weapon system,” Jane Rathbun, the Department of the Navy’s CTO said last year, while also acknowledging that the size of the NGEN request caught lawmakers off guard. “I’ve talked to a hundred people who spend six months with their lawyers deciding whether or not they can use procurement or O&M funding for things. I mean, that slows us down. It would be a cultural shift for the entire Department of Defense, and really enable a DevSecOps culture.”

Doug Bush, the newly-sworn in assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said much the same in a roundtable with reporters last month.

“I don’t believe the private sector distinguishes between R&D and procurement for software. But we do. Does that make sense? I’m not so sure,” he said. “But that’s going to have to be a discussion with Congress to make sure they’re comfortable with how we’re proposing to use the authorities and whether or not we can think about how we budget for software, which will be critically important.” —JS

Navy gets funds for Hawaii water contamination, lawmakers weigh issues of closing Red Hill

Tucked into the $1.5 trillion spending appropriation that passed Congress last week is a sizeable amount of money to get the Navy to clean up its act around water issues.

The budget secures more than $686 million for the service around mitigating water contamination in Hawaii.

The Defense Department announced just days prior to the omnibus passing that it would close its Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, a Pacific asset that dates back to World War II.

About $150 million of the funds will go to the closure of the facility. The rest of the money will support military families impacted by the contamination and recovery efforts.

Funds will also go to environmental restoration and for immediate financial assistance to families where federal funding does not apply.

The law also directs DoD to submit a report on the mitigation efforts in three months.

“This $686 million is an important step, but there is still a lot of work left to be done to safely defuel, permanently close the facility, and remediate any environmental contamination concerns,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said in a statement last week. “This will require direction and oversight by Congress in the out years to provide funding to ensure it is completed.”

Recent problems with the water supply in Hawaii after a fuel spill caused by operator error in late November last year. Operations at the site have been closed since. Residents began reporting symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, headaches and other health issues. It was later found that jet fuel had leaked into the water.

“The committees express disappointment in the Department’s operation and management of the facility and related infrastructure, which has negatively affected and disrupted the lives of service members, their families, and the people of Hawaii,” the bill report states.

The 80 year-old, 250 million gallon storage facility sits just 100 feet above the island of Oahu’s main aquifer, which provides 77% of the potable water in the area.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii states that since 1943, at least 180,000 gallons of fuel have leaked into Hawaii’s water from Red Hill.

Past spills have not been due to operator error. In 2014, tank 5 leaked 27,000 gallons of fuel into the water.

In 2019, the Navy released a third party report it directed stating that there was a 27.6% chance that 1,000 to 30,000 gallons of fuel could leak into the water per year. The Navy stated that the historical record did not reflect that probability considering there had only been one known leak since 1983.

DoD says Red Hill’s closure will be a multi-step process and the Pentagon plans to have a plan ready by the end of May with a target completion of one year.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the closure “the right thing to do,” in his statement announcing the shutdown of the facility.

“Centrally-located bulk fuel storage of this magnitude likely made sense in 1943, when Red Hill was built. And Red Hill has served our armed forces well for many decades. But it makes a lot less sense now. The distributed and dynamic nature of our force posture in the Indo-Pacific, the sophisticated threats we face, and the technology available to us demand an equally advanced and resilient fueling capability,” he wrote. “To a large degree, we already avail ourselves of dispersed fueling at sea and ashore, permanent and rotational. We will now expand and accelerate that strategic distribution.”

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said the Navy will not need to build any new facilities to replace Red Hill.

The decision is drawing fire from Republican lawmakers, however.

“Red Hill has serious problems, but the secretary closed Red Hill without laying out the resources needed to replace that capability,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee said at a hearing last week. “That’s extremely short sighted. The response from the department has been the same: The answer’s just one policy announcement away. That’s unacceptable.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wants more information on DoD’s plan.

“I would like to learn more about the potential operational risk of taking Red Hill offline,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Secretary Austin has stated that it is his goal to shut down this facility in just one year, but we haven’t seen a plan for how that is going to happen, and we don’t know if that plan is fully funded to execute as quickly as possible. We also need to understand how the Department of the Navy and Indo-Pacific Command will mitigate risk in this theater, how the repositioning of fuel will align with the National Defense Strategy, and if the Department of Defense has assessed the strategic value of Hawaii to all operational planning before making this decision.”

However, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said at the McAleese Conference last week that other storage facilities in the Pacific will be able to make up for the lack of Red Hill.

“I spent a lot of time just talking about the relationship between partners and allies,” Del Toro said. “We have the locations necessary to distribute that fuel effectively, without building an enormous number of additional fuel farms, for example.” — SM

Leadership roles take shape for DoD’s new data and AI office as Spirk departs CDO position

The Pentagon has picked a new official to head up its new Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence office, officials said Friday.

Margie Palmieri, previously a special assistant to the vice chief of naval operations took on the new role of deputy chief digital and artificial intelligence officer (CDAO) on Friday, the Defense Department said in a statement. Palmieri previously founded and led the Navy’s digital warfare office.

DoD first announced the standup of the new office in December. It’s meant to bring the management of its Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), chief data office and the Defense Digital Service under a single governance structure within the DoD CIO’s office. It reached initial operating capability last month, and is expected to declare full operating capability by June 1.

John Sherman, the DoD CIO, still holds the official title of “acting” CDAO, but Palmieri will lead the overall organization’s “executive team,” officials said. Meanwhile, several other newly-named deputies will have portfolios within the new structure:

  • Gen. Michael Groen, the current JAIC director, will continue in that role, along with the new title of senior military advisor to the CDAO
  • Clark Cully, the deputy DoD CDO, will serve as deputy CDAO for policy
  • Greg Little, the deputy DoD comptroller for data transformation, will serve as deputy CDAO for enterprise capabilities
  • Katie Olson, the acting director of the Defense Digital Service, will serve as deputy CDAO digital services
  • Dan Folliard, a former special assistant to the secretary of Defense, will serve as the CDAO’s chief operating officer.

On the same day, David Spirk, who had served as DoD’s chief data officer since May 2020, left government service, according to his LinkedIn profile. Fedscoop was first to report his departure.

Spirk told the publication he was comfortable leaving his position now in large part because of the progress that’s been made in standing up the new CDAO office.

While it’s still unclear exactly how the new structure will work, Defense officials have said they believe they will need legislation to formalize its roles and responsibilities within the CIO’s office and across the broader department. They’ve also insisted the intent is not to create another layer of management bureaucracy, but to harmonize and integrate the organizations that have handled AI, data analytics and data management functions up to this point.

“We’d created the CDO and the JAIC and DDS in a way that each was operating independently, as if the others don’t exist,” a senior Defense official told reporters in December. “That causes two kinds of inefficiencies. One, it means we don’t have the kind of integration across their lines of efforts that we could to really maximize the impact. And two, it means we don’t take advantage of when there are overlaps or underlaps in what they’re doing so that we can drive the right kind of prioritization in these spaces.” —JS

Navy, Marine reservists say they aren’t getting disability benefits

The Navy and Marine Corps are facing a class action suit from reservists with service-connected injuries who say they are having issues getting benefits.

Covington & Burling and the National Veterans Legal Services Program are filing the complaint.

The issue stems from what the suit calls a catch-22, where reserve sailors and Marines need to obtain a line of duty benefits letter to receive disability processing for retirement benefits. However, the case alleges that there is no formal process to get the letter.

“I hope this lawsuit helps service members, who like me, were unquestionably injured in the line of duty,” said Richard Henderson, a former petty officer first class and class action suit representative, who was injured in Afghanistan in 2014. “I was medically evacuated from Afghanistan for injuries I sustained while evading rocket fire.  Nonetheless, I was not offered access to the Navy’s duty-related disability retirement system. Instead, I was separated as if my injuries had occurred while I was off active duty orders. Now, because the Navy denied me a medical retirement, I am without the healthcare I need.”

The suit seeks declaratory and injunction relief to provide benefits to veterans through the Administrative Procedure Act. — SM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFGE takes aim at DoD hiring freezes and cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navy, Marines begin massive housing inspection

The Marine Corps and Navy are beginning third-party inspections of all of their privatized military housing, an undertaking that will encompass tens of thousands of homes.

The inspections are mandatory for all houses, and will give the services a better understanding of the overall condition of privately-operated homes on their bases.

“The inspections will be performed by two-person teams of certified home inspectors, graduate engineers and professional engineers,” a Marine Corps release stated. “Inspections will include home interiors and exteriors, heating and cooling systems, equipment drainage, landscaping and other improvements. Only components, systems and elements of the property that are readily accessible will receive inspection.”

The Department of the Navy hired Jacobs Engineering and HDR Engineering to conduct the independent reviews.

“Once completed, the inspection reports will provide the Marine Corps with a better understanding of the overall condition of the homes so that we can work with our privatized partners on potential improvements that will directly benefit present and future tenants,” the release said.

The inspections stem from the 2020 defense authorization act. After years of hearing reports of pests, mold, lead paint and other substandard living conditions in privatized military homes, Congress and the military services wanted a better understanding of the situation on the ground.

The law required the Defense Department to submit a plan to contract with a third party company to assess the structural integrity and habitability of each privatized housing unit.

“The committee is concerned that the confirmed military privatized housing crisis has created immediate needs for military families but also requires long-term and consistent oversight for the viability of the program,” the lawmakers wrote. “The committee believes that the totality of the condition of housing under the privatization initiative is unknown. The committee notes that, during its investigation of the MHPI program, both individual homes and entire neighborhoods were neglected as it relates to required preventative and curative maintenance. The committee is concerned that, if measures are not taken to ensure the long-term viability of the current inventory, the DoD may receive its housing inventory back in less than ideal conditions, leading to higher maintenance costs in the future.”

The third party inspections are also intended to give service members and their families’ some peace of mind in not having representatives from the military inspect their homes. Some families were concerned that they may incur repercussions from their commands if they complained about housing conditions to military representatives.

The services plan to wrap up the inspections by October. — SM

Navy rolling out remote desktops to reservists after ‘overwhelmingly positive’ pilot project

For members of the Navy’s far-flung reserve force, getting access to government IT networks is about to get a whole lot easier. The service is preparing for the “imminent” rollout of a new virtual desktop service that’ll let sailors log in from anywhere, and from pretty much any device — including personally-owned ones.

The upcoming deployment comes after a 250-user pilot that was “overwhelmingly positive,” Vice Adm. John Mustin, the chief of the Navy Reserve told sailors during a town hall this month. He said the new virtual desktop service will be platform-agnostic, and work whether the end user is logging in via a Navy-owned computer, a personally-owned one running Windows or MacOS, or a personal tablet or phone.

Virtual and remote desktops have become one important way agencies have delivered IT services to their work-from-home users during the pandemic, but the use case is compelling for the Navy Reserve even in the best of times, since a huge chunk of its 50,000 members don’t have easy access to a Navy Reserve Center or other facility with access to the Navy Marine Corps Intranet.

“We’re a distributed force. In many cases, we’re far from fleet concentration areas,” Mustin said. “The things that our active duty counterparts take for granted simply don’t exist to reach our sailors who are in Montana, or in South Dakota, where they’re far from clusters of Navy infrastructure. So we need to be smart about how we provide access.”

The transition to  common, remotely-provided desktop environment also dovetails with the Navy’s move to consolidate its email, collaboration and productivity services into a single Microsoft 365 offering called Operation Flank Speed. Among other things, that move will eliminate disparate Outlook calendars and the need to access local commands’ shared drives via VPNs.

For the near-term, users will still need to use Common Access Cards to access the system, but the Navy is working on other forms of two-factor authentication.

About 10% of the Navy Reserve’s users have transitioned to Flank Speed so far; its full complement of 60,000 reserve sailors should be moved by the end of March, officials say.

Also, by the end of the year, the Reserve plans to issue each of its sailors softphones, each with phone numbers tied to their Flank Speed accounts. Mustin said that transition is in keeping with the rest of the Reserve’s effort to get out of the IT hardware procurement business to the greatest extent possible.

“We don’t want to buy stuff that times out and becomes obsolete,” he said. “How many of you wrestled through the 1909 Microsoft software update that turned all the laptops into a brick a couple of years ago? We recognize, through Moore’s Law, that we don’t need to buy hardware. What we need to do is buy access and services.” —JS

Vets with jobs, community more likely to stick with PTSD treatment

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious condition impacting a large range of veterans, however, treating the condition properly can be a challenge.

The RAND Corporation recently took a deep dive into academia to find out what factors lead veterans sticking with treatments for PTSD and how they respond to it.

“Knowing which aspects of programs are associated with better response could help design more effective programs, and finding pretreatment patient characteristics that can serve as red flags for dropout or prompts to monitor specific patients more closely would be a valuable tool for clinical practice,” the authors wrote.

By searching through 70 studies, RAND found several factors keep vets showing up to therapy and other treatments.

Being married, older and having more severe PTSD are all factors that keep vets in treatment. Additionally, mental illness comorbidities and high treatment expectations keep people coming back.

Depression and service-related disabilities tended to have lower retention.

Not surprisingly, higher retention led to a higher response to treatments. However, there were other factors too. Higher income, employment and social support all factored into a better response to treatment.

Individual therapy also tended to increase response compared to group therapy. There was no difference in response when comparing telehealth to in-person therapy visits.

Depression, anger, higher PTSD severity and combat exposure led to lower response rates.

The authors also added in recommendations for how to better work with and help vets with PTSD. RAND suggests identifying vets with service-related disabilities during admission so efforts can be taken to retain them in treatment.

RAND found there was a lack of academic work between patient pain and response to PTSD treatment and tagged it as an area for future study. — SM

Navy appeals court decision barring punishment for SEALs who refused vaccine

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.

Justice Department attorneys filed formal notice with a federal appeals court on Friday, saying they’re challenging a Texas judge’s decision that prohibits the Navy from taking action against 35 special operators who’ve refused the COVID-19 vaccine because of religious objections.

Meanwhile, the government has also filed a new challenge to the Texas court’s jurisdiction, and arguing that the case should be moved to a different federal district court, perhaps one more sympathetic to the Navy’s religious accommodation process.

Judge Reed O’Connor granted a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit on Jan. 3, noting that the Navy hasn’t approved a religious accommodation for any vaccine in the past seven years. Instead, he found, the service merely “rubber stamps” each request with a denial. The court ruled the Navy’s process likely violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment because the government hasn’t shown a sufficient compelling interest in mandating vaccines over other alternatives.

The government hasn’t yet laid out its arguments challenging that injunction in the Fifth Circuit, but in separate filings, it’s also arguing the case should be dismissed, or at a minimum be moved out of Texas, and the reputationally conservative Fifth Circuit, entirely.

In a Jan. 14 motion, attorneys claimed no court can hear the case yet because the sailors challenging the mandate haven’t exhausted all of their administrative appeals, so the case isn’t “ripe” for judicial review. Judge O’Connor already essentially rejected that argument when he found the Navy’s entire process is “theater,” and that it’s a near certainty that each religious exemption will be denied.

But the government is also arguing the case must be transferred to a district court in Washington, D.C., Eastern Virginia, or Southern California, partly because those are the venues where DoD, the Navy and the Navy’s Special Warfare Command “reside” for legal purposes, and partly because, they argue, the case has no real connection to the Northern Texas district where the lawsuit was filed.

Attorneys for the sailors, most of whom are still anonymous, argued the Texas venue was proper because one of the plaintiffs is assigned to a Navy Reserve unit in Fort Worth. That unit itself is in the district, but in a separate affidavit from the sailor’s commanding officer, the government claimed the sailor actually lives outside the district.

The government claims the physical address of that particular Navy Reserve base isn’t enough to warrant adjudicating a lawsuit against top DoD and Navy officials in a Texas court.

“To find otherwise would strip [federal law] of its meaning because the Department of Defense likely would ‘reside’ in every district, and thus there would be nationwide venue in claims against the military,” attorneys wrote. “At most, all that occurred with respect to Plaintiff Navy SEAL 1 is that paperwork concerning his religious exemption request was forwarded to Navy decision-makers in Arlington, Virginia. Venue in this district hinges entirely on this thin reed, and it is not proper.”

The injunction barring “adverse action” against the 35 sailors was one of just several recent setbacks the government has faced with regard to its vaccine mandates. While no court has held the military’s vaccine mandates are illegal, a separate federal judge, also in Texas, ruled on Friday that the government’s mandate for federal civilian employees is, and blocked enforcement of that mandate nationwide.

That court drew, in part, from the reasoning in a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine mandate for large private employers. —JS

Military services made end strength work out in 2020, but challenges may be ahead

The military services are feeling the effects of COVID-19 when it comes to bringing fresh blood into the ranks as they begin increasing bonuses and other incentives to get people to join.

A new RAND Corporation study shows the extent to which the pandemic hurt enlisted recruiting in the first six months of 2020, and it seems that the services found a way to get by.

While closed schools and recruitment centers didn’t help bring in new people, almost all of the services saw an increase in retention rates and a drop in accessions.

“Retention rose, especially for retirement-eligible personnel, for the Army, Navy, and Air Force,” the authors of the study wrote.

The study states that the services put an emphasis on retention to meet end strength goals.

That balance brought most of the services to their end strength goals for 2020, even when some services were expanding.

The Marine Corps saw lower accessions and retention, however, the service is undergoing a transformation to become a smaller service and the authors attribute that policy to the decrease rather than COVID.

Technically, the services met their yearly accessions goals, but the RAND authors say there is a caveat to that statement.

“Each service essentially reached 100% of its accession goal in 2020, suggesting successful recruiting despite the disruption of the pandemic,” they wrote. “It is possible that the services dropped their accession goals midyear and met 100% of the new, lower goal, rather than meeting their original accession goals. While the Navy, by and large, kept its accession goal constant relative to 2019, the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps substantially reduced their goals in FY 2020 relative to 2019. For the Air Force, the goal dropped by nearly 20% (from 32,421 to 26,373); the Marine Corps’ goal dropped by 12%, and the Army’s goal dropped by 10%.”

There is also a silver lining that came from pandemic, the armed forces saw an increase in enlisted contract quality, meaning the talent of those signing contracts was higher. The military saw people scoring higher on the Armed Forces Qualification Test signing up than in previous years.

As the pandemic drags on, the military services’ actions are showing that a focus on retention will not sustain the end strength.

Earlier this month, the Army, for the first time, started offering a $50,000 enlistment bonus.

“We are still living the implications of 2020 and the onset of COVID, when the school systems basically shut down,” said Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, head of Army Recruiting Command, told the Associated Press. “We lost a full class of young men and women that we didn’t have contact with, face-to-face.” — SM

DISA working to build ‘Container-as-a-Service’ for DoD cloud users

Ubiquitous cloud computing terms like Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Platform-as-a-Service and Software-as-a-Service are starting to become more commonplace throughout DoD. Next up is Container-as-a-Service.

The Defense Information Systems Agency’s Hosting and Compute Center (HACC) has spent the last several months standing up a new project focused on containerized computing, using existing commercial technologies like Kubernetes.

The allure, officials think, is that the new approach will make it easier for DoD customers to embrace hybrid cloud approaches, since in theory, containerized software can run in a government data center, a commercial cloud, or on the battlefield without really caring about the actual computing environment.

“A server is a server is a server,” Sharon Woods, the HACC’s director said last week during a forum hosted by AFCEA’s Washington, D.C. chapter. “I think everyone’s relatively familiar with containers as a really important enabler of operating in the cloud, but we want to actually put that on-prem in the data centers. I think sometimes that raises an eyebrow for folks. They hadn’t even necessarily heard or conceived of that. But there’s a lot of efficiencies and capabilities that you gain with a container-based approach.”

Woods offered few details about the container project’s progress, but said the approach will be increasingly important as DoD transitions more of its computing dependencies into commercial environments under the forthcoming Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability contracts. Once that happens, the department will still need ways for applications and data to operate seamlessly with its own data centers for resiliency’s sake, especially outside the continental U.S.

“If you think about it, there’s the DoD transport, you have commercial transport, which will now become infinitely more available and accessible to us through JWCC, but then you have to have a level of resiliency and redundancy while also complying with data sovereignty,” she said. “So the on-prem cloud and DoD data centers become super critical. If things go down or communication gets disrupted, what do you do with your data? So of these different physical presences, plus the different transport networks, you have to overlay all of that to understand where we should position ourselves based on the mission of the Department of Defense.” —JS

VA Committee wants more information on toxic exposure

The House Veterans Affairs Committee is trying to understand more about service members’ experiences with toxic substances as it continues advocating for a bill to expand benefits for veterans impacted by them.

The Defense Department has a long history of exposing its employees to substances that have long-term health effects — Agent Orange and burn pits being some of the most famous.

The committee is asking veterans living with the effects of exposure to toxic substances to share their stories and their experiences trying to get benefits for their health issues.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, is sponsoring the Honoring our PACT Act, which addresses gaps in benefits for toxic exposure.

The bill would provide health care to as many as 3.5 million veterans impacted by hazards, establish illnesses in connection with burn pits, expand Agent Orange exposure coverage and create a presumption of exposure to radiation, among other things.

“We made a promise to service members when we sent them into harm’s way that we would care for them when they came home,” Takano said in a statement. “The Congressional Budget Office estimate is in, we now know the true cost of that promise, and we cannot renege on our responsibility. When we go to war we don’t nickel and dime the Department of Defense, and we cannot try to pinch pennies when it comes to covering the care for toxic-exposed veterans.”

The bill has the backing of 11 veterans service organizations.

CBO estimates the bill will cost more than $300 billion through 2031. — SM

Military awards contract for largest overseas hospital

The military is preparing to build its largest overseas hospital after awarding a nearly $1 billion contract for construction in Germany.

Züblin and Gilbane Joint Venture will built the Rhine Ordnance Barracks-Medical Center Replacement, a 985,000-square-foot facility with nine operating rooms, 120 exam rooms and 68 beds. The hospital will have the ability to expand 25 additional beds in emergencies.

Artist’s rendering of the Rhine Ordnance Barracks Medical Center Replacement. Photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We are incredibly proud of our team’s contribution to achieve this critical milestone that will enable us to provide our service members and their families with the best facility modern medicine has to offer,” Col. Patrick Dagon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District commander, said in a release.

Construction should be completed by the end of 2027.

The hospital will replace the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which is nearly 70-years-old and provides treatment to about 200,000 military personnel, civilians and dependents in Europe.

The contract is part of a larger campus construction that has $200 million already invested in it to build bridges, infrastructure and utilities.

The German government is also investing about $180 million.

“The U.S. invested approximately $350M annually in construction projects in the past few years, which are executed by the Federal Construction Administration.   This demonstrates the excellent reputation the German Construction Administration enjoys with our international partners,” said Sören Bartol, parliamentary state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Housing, Urban Development and Construction.  “Furthermore, these investments boost Germany’s economy and preserve jobs in economically distressed regions.” — SM

Punishments, and first religious exemptions, for military vaccine refusers

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

The hammer is starting to fall on soldiers who are resisting getting their COVID-19 vaccinations as the Army continues its push for compliance, however the military saw it’s first religious exemptions for not getting the shot with two Marines getting passes.

Recent numbers provided by the Army show that a little more than 3,600 soldiers are refusing to get the shot.

While that makes up a very small number of the active duty force, the Army is following through on the punitive actions it promised for soldiers who refuse the shot.

To date, the Army has not separated any soldiers solely for refusing to get the shot, though that is the final step for soldiers who ultimately do not get vaccinated. However, the service said it issued nearly 3,000 general reprimands to soldiers refusing the vaccine order.

The service also relieved six active duty leaders and two battalion commanders of their duties.

Soldiers were supposed to be fully vaccinated in December. Reservists and members of the National Guard have until the end of June to meet the mandate.

The Army has approved nearly 6,000 temporary exemptions, but permanent exemptions are few and far between. Only five medical exemptions were approved out of about 650. There are still about 50 of those exemption requests pending.

A total of 2,128 soldiers requested religious accommodations. None have been approved and more than 160 have been disapproved.

The Marine Corps is already beginning to offload service members who refused to get the shot and has separated more than 350 troops. The Air Force and Navy have done the same, firing 87 airmen and 20 sailors.

The Marine Corps granted two religious exemptions last week. The military as a whole already denied thousands of religious accommodation requests. The Defense Department is taking a hard-nosed stance on religion as a means to avoid the vaccine. Applications ask for previous proof that service members have religious issues with other vaccines or medical treatments. Service members must get 17 different vaccines to serve.

The Marine Corps’  decision to permit the two exemptions are the first vaccine passes in 10 years.

In a statement, the Marines said “all current exemption requests are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Each request will be given full consideration with respect to the facts and circumstances submitted in the request. ”

The vast majority of service members are complying with the vaccine mandate. The Army’s active duty component is 96% vaccinated and the Reserve is already 73% vaccinated.

All of the other services are in the same range with vaccination compliance in the mid- to high-90s range. — SM

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

DoD finally ready to be done with DUNS

It’s been a long time coming, but the Defense Department is telling its acquisition professionals it’s time to ditch the proprietary numbering system the government has used to identify its contractors for more than 25 years.

In a Jan. 7 memo to the workforce, the department’s top contracting policy official said DoD organizations should start transitioning away from Dun & Bradstreet’s system of DUNS numbers as soon as they can. After several years of preparation, the government as a whole is making its final move to a new system called the Unique Entity Identifier (UEI) in April.

“This transition allows the government to streamline the entity identification and validation process, making it easier and less burdensome for entities to do business with the federal government,” wrote John Tenaglia, the principal director in DoD’s Defense Pricing and Contracting office. “We encourage you to transition as soon as practicable to ensure your systems have time to address any implementation issues with [the General Services Administration] before GSA retires the use of the DUNS number.”

The government’s reliance on DUNS numbers to keep track of vendors dates back to the 1970s, but it’s been essentially mandatory for federal agencies to use them — and for contactors to register for numbers with Dun & Bradstreet — since 2003. It’s been especially useful to keep track of which company named, say, “AAA Building Supply” you’re talking about when you’re writing a contract or tracking spending, or to differentiate between various business units of a big conglomerate.

GSA has been thinking through ways to replace the system since at least 2012, the same year a Government Accountability Office report noted the government’s reliance on a sole-source contract to track its vendors was becoming increasingly expensive.

At that point, GSA’s agreement with Dun & Bradstreet to borrow its numbering scheme was costing about $19 million per year, GAO found. And GSA paid the company nearly $208 million between 2010 and 2022, according to figures in the government’s USASpending database.

The contract terms were also fairly restrictive: Other agencies who needed to query Dun & Bradstreet’s DUNS database for research or other purposes had to reach their own licensing agreements with the firm and pay separately. And anyone searching the government’s Federal Procurement Data System was presented with a spooky message cautioning them they weren’t allowed to use the DUNS numbers — ubiquitous throughout FPDS — for purposes that aren’t specifically “permissible” under the company’s agreement with GSA.

For a time, the requirement to use DUNS numbers was specifically written into the Federal Acquisition Regulation. The FAR Council, realizing it was a bad look for a body of regulation that insists on fair and open competition to also require the use of a specific company’s product, removed that requirement in 2016 in preparation for the eventual move to UEIs, the Congressional Research Service notes.

A good part of the transition has already happened. Under the new government-operated numbering system, GSA has already issued new UEI numbers to every vendor that’s registered in the System for Award Management (SAM). From now on, new contractors will get those numbers automatically, rather than having to register with Dun & Bradstreet separately.

DoD’s main, aging contract writing system, the Standard Procurement System, has also been successfully updated to use the new UEIs, Tenaglia wrote. The new numbers won’t become the “authoritative” identifiers and won’t fully replace DUNS until April 4.

Until then, prime contractors will still need to use DUNS numbers to report their subcontracting data. But after that, they’ll have to use UEIs. That’s when DUNS will be officially dead — at least for government contracting purposes. —JS

DoD establishes cybersecurity consortium with universities

The Defense Department is teaming up with academia to start a new consortium focused on cybersecurity.

The Department of Defense Consortium for Cybersecurity (UC2) will open up communication between the Pentagon and schools and vice versa on creative ways to protect networks.

The consortium is putting particular emphasis on community colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“Diversity of ideas will create the best innovation,” Heidi Shyu, DoD undersecretary for research and engineering, said at the consortium kickoff.

The schools and DoD will share insights and recommendations.

“The detailed information will come out a bit later,” Shyu told reporters at a Defense Writers Group forum. “We have specific challenges or have specific research areas we are interested in like zero trust. You can utilize this consortium to develop the critical enabling technologies.”

The consortium stems from a mandate in the 2020 defense authorization act. That law tells DoD to develop partnerships with schools to improve security.

“The functions of the consortium are to provide to the defense secretary access to the expertise of the members of the consortium on matters relating to cybersecurity,” the legislative report states. “The consortium will align the efforts of consortia members in support of the Department of Defense and to act as a facilitator in responding to department requests relating to advice and assistance on matters relating to cybersecurity and to provide feedback to the secretary from members of the consortium.”

Senior Defense cyber leaders and academics kicked off the effort during a meeting at Ft. McNair in Washington. — SM

Army comes up with quick fix for email attachment issues

The Army is making digital life a little easier for soldiers by making it possible to download and send attachments in emails outside of a government network.

Raj Iyer, Army chief information officer, announced last week that after receiving complaints for employees, the service will be changing its policy.

“When we initially rolled out Army365 we were not ready to address the cybersecurity risks associated with allowing users to download/ upload files from your personal devices,” Iyer wrote on his LinkedIn page. “We now have a solution that we are currently implementing to enable you to do just that. Be on the watch for detailed instructions on Army365 in the next few days on how you can leverage this new functionality.”

Right now, soldiers can only access some files if they are using a government network, something that was particularly prohibitive for Reserve and National Guard members.

Iyer also teased some new pilots that soldiers can look forward to in the near future.

“We are getting ready to pilot bring your own device and Virtual Desktop Infrastructure that will tremendously enhance the user experience this year,” Iyer wrote. — SM


Despite long struggle over intellectual property, DoD still lacks bench of IP experts

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

The Defense Department’s efforts to clear up intellectual property issues through Congressionally-mandated programs have made some progress, but the department has not solidified one of the core groups in charge of improving IP policy, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

IP has been a burr in the sock of the Defense Department for years, especially now that the Pentagon is relying more heavily on the innovation of private industry than its own in-house research.

As DoD has struggled to find the right balance between assuming IP from companies and letting business retain proprietary information, Congress — for the last five or so years — has taken steps to clear some of the muck.

“You really need people with the right skills and right knowledge about intellectual property; what they’re going to need in the future to be [able] to project,” Timothy DiNapoli, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at GAO, told Federal News Network. “What kind of data will we need five, 10, 15 years from now, how do we negotiate that type of data rights? How do we identify it? Those are things that are much longer term and probably much more challenging to do.”

Congress asked DoD to set up an IP Cadre to “ensure a consistent, strategic, and highly knowledgeable approach to acquiring or licensing intellectual property by providing expert advice, assistance, and resources to the acquisition workforce on intellectual property matters, including acquiring or licensing intellectual property,” according to the 2018 defense authorization act report.

Lawmakers envisioned the experts being assigned to a program office or acquisition command to advise and assist on IP matters.

DiNapoli said DoD has put out policy to address these IP concerns and create the cadre, but the depth is not there yet.

“It’s a good start, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done out in the field to make sure that we’re doing a better job of defining requirements, negotiating to meet those requirements, and then ensuring that we actually obtained and track the data so that we know what we have,” he said.

DoD has funding for only five positions through 2023 for the cadre; the temporality of the jobs are a disincentive to hiring the long-term experts DoD needs, GAO said. So far, DoD has allocated nearly $5 million for the cadre in 2020 and 2021.

“While DoD has developed a conceptual framework intended to guide its operations, we found that the department has not yet detailed how the IP Cadre will meet its broad responsibilities or determined whether it has the capacity to do so,” the report states.

There are also issues in the organization of the cadre as well.

“The members of the IP Cadre expect to tap into a larger pool of IP experts across DoD to support program offices by helping them develop IP strategies and negotiate with contractors, among other things,” the report states. “However, DoD has not yet detailed how the Director of the IP Cadre and the DoD will work with these other experts.”

DiNapoli’s team found that DoD lacks expertise in two areas as well: IP valuation and financial analysis. DoD is currently undertaking a pilot project to study valuation strategies.

“The pilot program will study valuation strategies used by one major Army weapon system and three smaller Navy programs to identify practices that can be shared across DoD and incorporated into department-wide guidance,” the GAO authors wrote.

Outside of the cadre, GAO found DoD’s current instruction on IP to be lacking.

“While the IP instruction emphasizes the importance of acquiring and licensing IP early in the acquisition process, officials from the IP Cadre and military departments stated that the instruction and department-wide guidance do not address DoD’s ability to acquire detailed manufacturing or process data,” the GAO authors wrote.

DiNapoli’s team gave DoD four recommendations. It suggested a planned guidebook on IP to clarify how DoD personnel can pursue detailed manufacturing or process data. The team said DoD needs to better coordinate staffing and funding and ensure DoD collaborates with the Defense Acquisition University on IP tasks between 2023 and 2025. Finally, the team recommended developing guidance to help component heads identify personnel in key career fields who would most benefit from IP training. — SM

Army — no stranger to simulators — wants to use them to train contracting workforce

The Army is extremely accustomed to using simulation-based training to help build competency among its helicopter pilots and other professions directly involved in warfighting. Now it’s trying the same for a cadre who work a bit more behind the scenes: Contracting professionals.

The service has started to roll out gamification to train contracting officers and contract specialists, particularly younger, less seasoned members of the workforce, said Megan Dake, the acting deputy assistant secretary of the Army for procurement.

She said the simulation project is being led by a team of government software developers, and for starters, will try to “gamify” only relatively simple acquisition programs.

“Through machine learning, the computer will learn and change up the scenario,” Dake said last week at the National Contract Management Association’s annual Government Contract Management Symposium in Washington.

Eventually though, the Army wants to mature the contracting simulator to be able to handle much more complicated procurements.

“My goal is to get where you have an entire training simulation, where you’re writing an RFP and releasing it on the street for something like a $200 million buy,” she said. “You do a formal source selection, and you walk through a simulation of all the different scenarios depending on what decisions you’ve made. Just like what a pilot would go through in a simulator — they make a decision, it could mean a crash. You could make one little mistake in a source selection or negotiation, but you learn through this without making real-life mistakes.”

But the Army’s reasons for moving to more technologically-driven training approaches go beyond the obvious allure of giving people opportunities to learn through consequence-free mistakes. There’s also a huge need to teach contracting professionals at a pace that’s more rapid than what they might otherwise learn from on-the-job experience and mentorship, since the Army still has a big gap between seasoned members of its workforce and newer hires.

That bathtub has meant newer contract professionals have been asked to take on relatively large amounts of experience fairly early in their careers.

“We move contract specialists up quickly, and I think it’s just because most organizations within Army contracting always have shortages, so you have to move someone up and get them trained really quickly,” she said. “We’re trying to encourage mentorships, but the [younger employees] also want things done quicker. They’re used to technology, and sometimes they don’t have those critical thinking skills … I think that’s where we have different strengths and weaknesses among our younger workforce. They’re used to things just happening. Really thinking through some of the really complex problems we have is what our more seasoned workforce can do. So there definitely is a gap, but I think we can learn from each other.” —JS

Space Force interested in outsourcing spy capabilities

There is software-as-a-service and IT-as-a-service, but what about space surveillance-as-a-service?

The Space Force is at least interested in seeing if something like that is feasible. The service put out a sources sought notice to see if there is a different way to operate its Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) Block 10 system.

The Air Force launched SBSS Block 10 in 2010 and is used to “provide timely analysis of high interest satellite maneuvers, predictions of potential collisions for tracked objects, location of lost objects, and identification of unknown objects,” according to the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. It is also used by U.S. Strategic Command for intelligence and situational awareness, and used by the National Air and Space intelligence Center to detect changes in high interest objects that could result in the failure to control a satellite.

The sources sought will tell the Space Force if contractors can operate and maintain the vehicle from their own facilities and possibly a new vehicle once the SBSS Block 10 is decommissioned.

One thing that complicates the possibility of the contract is that Boeing and Ball Corporation own specific proprietary information regarding the engineering and technology. The contractor would need to work with the two companies in order to maintain and operate the system.

Companies will also have to work in top-secret atmospheres.

Currently Boeing is maintaining the system and has brought in more than $150 million under its current contract overseeing the SBSS Block 10. — SM

DoD has major blind spots in identifying extremists in military justice system

One of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first acts was to order a 60-day stand-down to address potential extremism among military members, and a subsequent Pentagon report found infiltration of extremist ideology was a genuine threat to good order and discipline.

But nearly a year after Congress ordered the department to start producing data on how widespread the problems are, the Pentagon still has enormous blind spots, according to DoD’s inspector general.

Last year’s Defense authorization bill put the IG in charge of collecting information from the military services on “prohibited activities” in the ranks — specifically, supremacist, extremist, and criminal gang activity.

Based on what the services told the IG, there were 281 such investigations in the military criminal justice system in Fiscal 2021, including 56 cases in which military members were suspected of being racially-motivated violent extremists, 102 in which members were suspected of “domestic violence extremism,” 10 who were thought to have participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and 24 who were suspected to have an affiliation with a criminal gang.

But those figures may be just the tip of the iceberg, because DoD has no standardized mechanisms or policies for collecting data. Of the three military departments, the Army is the only one that even requires all allegations of “extremist activity” to be reported to a central organization — in that instance, its Criminal Investigation Command.

Out of the cases the IG did manage to identify, the military services had widely-varying definitions of what they counted as worrisome behavior. For example, in response to the office’s data calls, the Air Force included “contempt toward a public figure” and “domestic violence extremism” among the offenses it considered prohibited activates; the other services did not.

That’s partly because DoD still hasn’t set consistent policies for reporting data on extremism. As of last month, the department’s office of personnel and readiness was still circulating a draft version of a memo that would do so, but even if that version is eventually finalized as-written, it wouldn’t take effect for another four months.

“Until the DoD establishes DoD-wide policy for tracking and reporting allegations of prohibited activities, the DoD will continue to have inconsistent tracking of disciplinary actions for participation in extremist organizations and activities; problems identifying and collecting data from multiple, decentralized systems; and difficulty validating the accuracy of the data, the IG wrote.”

Moving more TRICARE patients to civilian care would cause ‘significant harm,’ study finds

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 study is casting doubt on the plan to “right size” the Military Health System by moving some TRICARE beneficiaries away from Defense Department facilities for medical care.

The report, funded by the Pentagon and published in Health Services Research journal, said moving patients away from care at military treatment facilities (MTFs) could cause significant harm.

The study goes as far to say that taking 10% of the population away from MTFs could cause significantly worse mortality rates and safety for patients.

“On average, Military Health System beneficiaries treated in MTFs experienced better inpatient-quality and improved patient-safety compared to MHS beneficiaries treated in locally-available civilian hospitals,” the study states. “Simulations of proposed changes resulted in consistently worse outcomes for Military Health System patients, whether reducing MTF access by 10%, 20%, or 50% nationwide; limiting MTF access to active-duty beneficiaries; or closing MTFs with the worst performance on patient-safety.”

The current strategy would close about 50 MTFs and move approximately 200,000 patients from getting care on base to using their TRICARE insurance to get assistance from private providers.

The report is the first look into how TRICARE beneficiaries could be directly impacted by the plan.

DoD sent a report to Congress in February 2020 laid out some issues that the downsizing might create, including making some bases less desirable, forcing troops to take off work to escort family members to health services off base and possible issues in finding standardized care for women.

DoD outlined mitigation strategies in the report like providing alternative transport strategies for family members.

The Defense Health Agency said it would rethink which facilities might be downsized after COVID exposed issues in civilian medical facility capacity.

In the beginning of the pandemic the Government Accountability Office released a report stating that DHA’s original assessment of the civilian marketplaces did not consistently account for provider quality and that inaccurate information was used to calculate how far patients would have to drive to get healthcare.

“MTF officials we interviewed also expressed concerns that the assessments did not account for traffic, including bridges and tunnels that create traffic chokepoints. In other words, they believed that even providers that appeared to be within drive time standards based on mileage could actually exceed the standard depending on their location and time of day,” the report stated. — SM

Senate appropriators ding Pentagon for inadequate transparency on middle-tier, OTA programs

In 2016, Congress gave DoD two new authorities that let it bypass much of the traditional Defense acquisition bureaucracy when it’s building or buying new prototypes. The tradeoff was supposed to be detailed reporting on how the Pentagon used those new authorities, but the Senate said DoD still isn’t living up to its end of the bargain.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s version of the 2022 Defense appropriations bill, released last week, critiques DoD on transparency grounds on its use of both middle-tier acquisitions (MTAs) and other transaction agreements (OTAs.)

On MTAs, the committee points out the military services are now using the rapid prototyping and rapid fielding avenue — sometimes called “Section 804” authority — for 74 separate weapons programs. In a report accompanying the bill, lawmakers said MTAs look like they’re becoming a “de facto” approach to buying end items.

But at least so far, DoD hasn’t complied with an existing law that requires it to send Congress detailed information on R&D funds used for MTA programs that make their way into operational use. And the committee said there’s reason to be concerned that a lack of detail on MTAs might prompt the military services to make unwise procurement planning decisions.

DoD’s existing approaches “may limit the services’ ability to successfully manage their acquisition programs in the long term by eliminating the complete understanding of full program costs up-front, unnecessarily narrowing the industrial base early in the acquisition process, and eliminating opportunities for future innovation by reducing competition over the life of the acquisition,” senators wrote. “Further, the committee is concerned that budgeting for these de facto end-items incrementally with research and development appropriations instead of fully funding them with procurement appropriations obfuscates costs and limits transparency and visibility into services’ procurement efforts.”

The Senate bill would order DoD to send Congress a list of all its acquisition programs that are using prototyping or rapid acquisition authorities, along with rationales for those decisions and cost estimates and contracting strategies for each one. Though it doesn’t mandate it, the committee report also opines that DoD needs an overarching policy on how the military services should plan and budget sustainment costs for weapons that start out as MTA projects.

Senators have similar complaints when it comes to other transaction agreements.

The same committee report laments that the Federal Procurement Data System still hasn’t been updated to capture important data on DoD’s use of OTAs, forcing the department to fall back to manual data calls to gather basic information.

“This issue is exacerbated when analyzing OTAs awarded through consortiums and provides limited visibility on the industry partners that are executing the work on behalf of the consortium,” according to the report.

The DoD inspector general raised similar concerns in a report earlier this year, noting that government spending databases contain almost no information about individual projects managed by consortiums. Under those circumstances, since the only contractual relationship is between the government and the consortium, official spending records only reflect the large, initial award to the consortium. Data on the actual tasks being done by consortium members is stored on individual spreadsheets that aren’t accessible to Congress or the public, obscuring billions of dollars in annual Defense spending.

Congress has already ordered DoD to improve its data collection and reporting on OTAs. The Senate bill would also require Defense acquisition officials to brief the Congressional defense committees on what they’re doing to improve the Federal Procurement Data System — or possibly use a different data system for OTAs altogether. —JS

Senate pumps brakes on DoD proposal to expand ‘colorless’ software appropriation

DoD’s prospects for moving more of its IT programs into a new, experimental software appropriation are looking dimmer, at least in the near term.

Last month, the House Appropriations Committee voted to allow the military services to expand the colorless money pilot to 12 programs, up from nine in 2021. In general, the approach lets managers fund an entire IT program using solely R&D funds, eliminating the distinctions between R&D, procurement and operations and maintenance funding that are largely irrelevant to modern software development.

But the Senate’s version of the 2022 Defense appropriations bill put the brakes on any expansion of the Software and Digital Technology Pilot Program. It’s not that appropriators necessarily think it’s a bad idea, they say, but they’d like to see some data on how it’s working before it gets any bigger. And DoD still hasn’t delivered information on the pilots that Congress demanded in last year’s appropriations bill.

“Objective quantitative and qualitative evidence is required to evaluate the ongoing approved pilot programs prior to considering an expansion of programs,” according to the committee report. “Reporting requirements … have not been submitted to the congressional defense committees on a timely basis, and have not yet provided a baseline for analyzing the effectiveness of the pilot programs compared to traditional appropriation practices.”

The Senate bill would order DoD to draw up an analysis of how the eight existing pilot programs are performing so far, compared against eight similar IT programs that use the traditional appropriations method. —JS

Congress starting to sweat over space acquisition

One of the biggest selling points of creating a Space Force was to consolidate the Defense Department’s space acquisition efforts.

But, nearly two years after the branch was created, some of the biggest issues around how the Pentagon will buy space assets are still unsolved and Congress is taking notice.

In the 2022 Senate defense appropriations bill, lawmakers said they are worried about how slowly DoD’s new space acquisition process is developing.

“The committee understands that multiple military services and agencies across the Department of Defense retain equities in acquisition programs tied to the space domain and that consolidation of space based acquisition programs is an ongoing endeavor,” the committee report states. “However, the committee is concerned that delaying consolidation of space based acquisition programs under the Space Force may result in inefficiencies across the Department of Defense.”

The bill asks DoD to submit a report identifying space-related development and acquisition programs.

“This report shall include a list of programs for each service or agency and the executing program office; a brief description of the capability provided; a determination of whether the program will be transferred to the Space Force; timeline for transfer; and explanation of the rationale leading to the transfer decision,” the report said.

One of the biggest issues surrounding how DoD buys space systems is the office that will lead the effort.

The creation of a Space Force, Space Development Agency and space acquisition office in the Air Force were meant to address criticisms that the Defense Department’s fragmented leadership on buying space weapons was delaying critical capabilities.

The 2020 defense authorization act requires DoD to appoint a space acquisition executive.

That position, which must be created by October 2022, would work with the Air Force service acquisition executive on space systems. The position would also be in charge of the Space Development Agency, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space and Missile Systems Center.

Space News reported that Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is trying to speed up that nomination process by asking Congress to authorize an assistant secretary for space acquisition before that 2022 deadline.

Kendall is in talks with Congress about amending the 2022 defense authorization bill to do that.

The Air Force has already made some preparations for what the office will look like. At the beginning of the year the Air Force revamped its space acquisition shop by splitting it into three directorates.

“We have gone from an organization that was largely focused on policy and providing advice and counsel to the Air Force secretary to one that is now focused on, or will be focused on, acquisition, architecture, and then policy and integration,” Shawn Barnes, who is performing the duties of Air Force assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration, said when the Air Force undertook the initiative.

The three directorates are each run by a colonel and focus on the three areas Barnes mentioned: Acquisition, architecture, and policy and integration.

“Underlying those three key directorates,” Barnes said. “I have a number of subject matter experts that effectively work for all three of those directorates. They’re set up into different teams based on mission areas. We have a mission area related to precision navigation, timing and communications. We have a team that is focused on space control, a team that is focused on launch in space logistics, and then a team that’s focused on space control.” — SM

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