DoD Reporter’s Notebook

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

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DoD: Transferring GI Bill benefits to your family is ‘not an entitlement’

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GI BillIf there’s one message that rings through in the Defense Department’s decision to clamp down on service members’ ability to transfer their education benefits to their children or spouses, it’s this: Even if the GI Bill itself is an entitlement, the aspect of the program that lets service members pass the benefit along to their dependents is not.

In a policy change late last week that caught military and veterans’ advocates by surprise, the Pentagon announced that military members will lose their ability to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their dependents if they’ve already served at least 16 years in uniform. The change takes effect a year from now.

Previously, the benefit, which covers the full costs of tuition plus room and board at an in-state public university, was transferable at any time, as long as the service member was willing to commit to at least four more years of military service.

And other sections of the policy make clear how serious DoD is that that commitment be carried out. For example, troops who are on limited duty, or whose fitness is being examined by a medical evaluation board aren’t even eligible to apply until those processes are completed.

In its revisions to the formal instruction outlining the rules for GI Bill eligibility, DoD added numerous clauses emphasizing that service members have no right to transfer their benefits. They can request it, but approval is entirely up to Defense officials.

“Transferability is neither an entitlement nor a transition or readjustment benefit,” according to some of the updated language.  “The military departments will not automatically approve a service member’s request to elect to transfer benefits.  Before approving an individual’s request to elect to transfer benefits, the secretary concerned must determine whether the service member is eligible for retention under the military department or service retention policies (e.g., high-year tenure) and is not precluded by either DoD, military department, service policy, or statute from being retained for four additional years from the date of election.”

In a statement, Defense officials said the new 16-year rule was directly connected to retention,  which they said was the “intended purpose” of the portion of the GI Bill that allows the transfer of benefits. They did not offer a detailed explanation for how the change would enhance recruiting or retention, or how they were harmed by the previous rules.

“After a thorough review of the policy, we saw a need to focus on retention in a time of increased growth of the Armed Forces,” said Stephanie Miller, DoD’s director of accessions policy. “This change continues to allow career service members that earned this benefit to share it with their family members while they continue to serve. This change is an important step to preserve the distinction of transferability as a retention incentive.”

One possible rationale is the theory that military members who have already served 16 years in uniform don’t need G.I. Bill transferability as an incentive to remain in military service. Those members already have a strong incentive to stay for four more years, since they generally become eligible for lifelong retirement pensions and health coverage after 20 years of service.

But military and veterans advocates groups said they were not certain of DoD’s reasoning for the change, which came as a surprise.

“We hadn’t been reached out to, and I don’t know anybody else that’s been reached out to,” said Thomas Porter, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which lobbied aggressively for the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s initial passage. “We’re very strong defenders of this really transformative benefit, and we’re going to oppose any efforts to erode it.”

Porter added that the transferability feature of the GI Bill is widely seen in military circles as a central component of the program, and is, itself, an “earned benefit.”

“It’s certainly something that’s always been communicated that way, and that’s the way a good number of military members understand it to be,” he said in an interview.

Porter said his group was eager to hear justifications from DoD about exactly how the policy changes could help with retention, but that he had heard none so far.

“We don’t see it that way. We’re in a situation where the military is trying to increase end strength. I don’t know how you do that if you’re going to erode a benefit,” he said. “Why do that unnecessarily?”

Dana Atkins, the president of the Military Officers Association of America, said DoD’s changes represented the first attempt since the Post 9/11 GI Bill’s passage to  restrict eligibility for the benefit. MOAA has said it was also not consulted about the change.

“At its inception, lawmakers insisted upon the ability to transfer GI Bill benefits as a way to recruit and retain America’s best and brightest. Transferability, coupled with an additional service requirement, became one of the cornerstones of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The option to transfer benefits is particularly valuable for military officers, many of whom already have collegiate and advanced degrees,” Atkins said in a written statement to Federal News Radio. “MOAA believes the unilateral change to cut off transferability will likely have a compounding, negative effect on recruiting and retention over time. As military families continue to serve during the longest period of sustained conflict in American history, we question the timing of this change and will seek to learn the VA’s role and the interest level of Congress.”

The change comes less than a year after Congress moved to make the Post-9/11 GI Bill more generous.

Among other changes, the Forever GI Bill, signed into law last August, lets former military members use their education benefits at any point in their life, eliminating the previous requirement that they do so within 15 years of leaving the military.

The Veterans Affairs Department administers and funds the education benefit, although the program’s eligibility rules are set by DoD. The House Veterans Affairs Committee is set to hold a hearing on the implementation of the new law on Wednesday.

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

In pursuit of innovative technologies, DoD creates another pathway around traditional acquisition rules

Amid the hype over its growing use of Other Transaction Agreements, the Defense Department is taking yet another step into unorthodox contracting methods as it pursues more participation from non-traditional vendors.

As part of a four-year pilot program, the Pentagon has just issued new rules that will let its contracting officers move though streamlined acquisition processes when they’re buying “innovative” commercial goods and services. Much like the department’s burgeoning use of OTAs, they’ll allow DoD to make purchases without issuing traditional requests for proposal and conducting formal competitions. But unlike OTAs, those purchases won’t be restricted mainly to prototypes.

And the term “innovative” is fairly broad, under the June 26 guidance DoD published, known as a class deviation.

It sweeps up any commercial “technology, process, or method, including research and development, that is new as of the date of submission of a proposal, or any application that is new as of the date of submission of a proposal of a technology, process, or method.”

Congress first granted DoD the new authority in December 2016 as part of the annual Defense authorization bill, but the department hasn’t implemented it until now.

Under the pilot, acquisition officials will issue “general solicitations” to industry, instead of specific requests for proposals that describe precisely what the department wants to buy. And instead of the rigorous technical and price analyses that usually go into deciding a winner in a traditional procurement, officials will make a selection based on a “peer review” process involving subject matter experts.

“Written evaluation reports on individual proposals are required, but proposals need not be evaluated against each other since they are not submitted in response to a common performance work statement or statement of work,” Shay Assad, DoD’s procurement policy chief wrote in the guidance.

Military services and agencies will be allowed to use the process for procurements of up to $100 million — or even more than that, as long as they notify Congress and get permission from the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment.

The process is loosely modeled on the Commercial Solutions Opening: a process the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) pioneered to award OTAs to nontraditional vendors.

But unlike OTAs, there’s no requirement for the new pilot program to focus on nontraditional vendors: the awards can go to anyone, as long as DoD deems them to be for “innovative” technology, and as long as it can “reasonably” anticipate that multiple companies will offer up different scientific or technological approaches. Also unlike OTAs, the awards have to be made as firm, fixed-price contracts.

Congress allowed similar authority to the General Services Administration and the Homeland Security Department as part of the same law, but pegged their use of the pilot program at $10 million per-award instead of $100 million. Thus far, neither GSA nor DHS has issued its own class deviations to take lawmakers up on the offer.

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

Deasy takes control of JEDI, but fate of DoD’s cloud steering group is up in the air

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The Pentagon on Monday added some clarity to what it meant by a vague statement it issued a week earlier announcing that its new chief information officer would assume responsibility for the Defense Department’s “cloud initiative.” But a significant portion of the department’s cloud planning effort remains up in the air.

In a memo DoD provided to Federal News Radio, the department made explicit that the new CIO, Dana Deasy, is now in charge of the upcoming multi-billion dollar Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract. The memo, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, orders the program management office conducting the JEDI procurement to be transferred to Deasy’s “authority, direction and control.”

Previously, the JEDI effort — and DoD’s broader cloud strategy — had been overseen by the Cloud Executive Steering Group (CESG), a cross-functional leadership team Shanahan assembled last September and then restructured in January. While the latest iteration gave the CIO’s office a vote, the group was chaired by John Gibson, DoD’s chief management officer, and the Defense Digital Service had direct responsibility for conducting the JEDI acquisition.

In the memo, Shanahan said it’s also his “intent” that Deasy serve as the lead for the department’s overall cloud initiative. But in response to questions about whether the CESG still exists and what responsibilities it still has, the department said the answers are yet to be determined.

“As a part of designating CIO as lead for cloud, the department is reviewing existing governance structures and reporting chains and will take deliberate steps to realign authorities as necessary,” Heather Babb, a Defense spokeswoman said in a statement. “This process is expected to occur over the coming weeks.”

Under the CESG’s initial charter, the JEDI acquisition was to be only the first phase of Shanahan’s multi-step plan to “accelerate” DoD’s move to commercial cloud services, an initiative he had dubbed “a department priority.”

The second phase was supposed to have been led by the department’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which Shanahan had assigned the task of deciding which DoD systems should be migrated to the new cloud environment first and “operationaliz[ing] the mission using the security, software and machine learning technologies that cloud technology provides.”

The Defense Department had previously told vendors and lawmakers that it would release a final JEDI request for proposals by May. But those predictions were made before Deasy was sworn in as CIO, and before he took over responsibility for JEDI.

On Monday, DoD declined to offer an updated prediction for when an RFP might be released, but denied that Deasy had directed any significant changes.

“There has been no change to the JEDI Cloud acquisition, and DoD is continuing to review the final RFP before it is released. I do not have an exact date at this time,” Babb said.

To date, the aspect of the JEDI acquisition that has generated the most criticism from Congress and industry groups  has been the department’s decision to make the multi-billion dollar award to a single cloud technology vendor, or perhaps a single team of vendors. Among other factors, critics contend a single-award approach would deprive the military of much of the innovation that’s certain to take place over the next several years in the dynamic, competitive commercial marketplace for cloud services.

In a May report to Congress, the department justified that decision by saying its plans for rapidly moving Defense applications to the cloud would be delayed if it were to issue a multiple-award contract, because it would have to conduct separate competitions each time it issued a task order.

“That pace could prevent DoD from rapidly delivering new capabilities and improved effectiveness to the warfighter that enterprise-level cloud computing can enable,” officials wrote.

Defense officials have not indicated whether that stance has changed since Deasy’s arrival, nor have they given any hints as to what’s behind the delay of the final RFP.

Deasy himself has made few public remarks since he became CIO in May, though he spoke in general terms about his vision for the job, including cloud computing, during remarks at AFCEA’s defensive cyber operations symposium in Baltimore about a week after taking office.

“Cloud is one of the most iterative things I’ve ever been involved with in 36-plus years,” he said. “First of all, there’s not a singular thing that cloud is. There’s a lot of different things to what makes up a cloud, and so one of the things I find you have to do early on to get clear what conversation you’re in … and to understand this is not a case of trying to lift out of your old world and suddenly trying to drop into a new world. But this is the most phenomenal opportunity I think we’ve ever experienced, to be able to look at your legacy estate and re-engineer.”

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

Navy signs OTA for up to $100 million in information warfare prototypes

Judging just by dollars spent, the Navy has been slower than the other military services to join the Defense Department’s current craze over other transaction agreements. But in what may be a turning of the tide, the service is putting $100 million toward a new OTA vehicle over the next three years, just for information warfare.

The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) signed an agreement last week with Advanced Technology International, one of six companies that bid to operate the new OTA consortium, called the Information Warfare Research Project (IWRP). ATI, which already manages more than a dozen other consortia for companies interested in OTA work, already has an IWRP website up and running, urging firms and academic institutions to sign up, and touting the low barriers to entry involved with the OTA process.

SPAWAR could start delivering work to those entities as soon as August, officials said. As has been the case with other Defense OTAs, the emphasis is on garnering prototype proposals from firms that would not normally be willing to jump through the necessary hoops to perform government work.

“We are truly doing something different and unique here,” Chris Miller, the executive director of SPAWAR’s Systems Center-Atlantic, said in a statement. “The IWRP will allow us to take advantage of commercially developed capabilities that are keeping pace with emerging technologies, technologies and innovation that we cannot take advantage of in a FAR-based contract environment.”

Until now, the Navy has been more reluctant than the Army and Air Force to allocate its R&D dollars toward OTAs, despite a 2015 Congressional decision to significantly expand DoD’s authority to use the non-contract agreements. According to data compiled by Bloomberg Government, the Navy spent just $42 million on OTAs last year, compared to the Army’s $1.2 billion and the Air Force’s $236 million.

SPAWAR’s IWRP process is fairly typical of other IT-focused DoD OTAs: It will notify members of the consoritium whenever it has a particular technology need it wants them to fill, then ask for brief white papers describing what companies and other institutions think they can do to address the challenge. Firms can also submit unsolicited white papers if they believe they have a particularly innovative technology the government doesn’t know about.

The Navy plans to use the new OTA for 14 different “technology areas:”

  • Cyber warfare
  • Cloud computing
  • Data science and analytic technologies
  • Assured communications
  • Enterprise resource tools
  • Collaboration and social networking
  • Autonomy
  • Mobility
  • Assured command and control
  • Integrated fires
  • Model-based systems engineering
  • On-demand manufacturing
  • Embedded systems in the “internet of things (IoT).”

Also like most other OTA consortia, IWRP membership is open to both traditional and non-traditional Defense contractors.

For non-traditionals, ATI paints the process as fairly straightforward, at least in terms of the government procedures they’ll need to comply with in order to join. They’ll need to establish themselves as a government vendor by registering with the System for Award Management, get a DUNS number if they don’t already have one, and sign a military-critical technical data agreement in order to get potentially-sensitive unclassified information connected with the OTA projects.

Because of the latter requirement, IWRP is only open to U.S.-based companies.

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

Senate’s NDAA admonishes DoD for failure to obey prior health reform mandates

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The $717 billion Defense policy bill overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Monday night includes several provisions that are designed to prod the Pentagon into implementing management reforms Congress passed in the 2017 version of the annual legislation, indicating that the Senate believes DoD is dragging its feet in at least a few areas of serious concern on Capitol Hill.

Among them: Senators accused the department of effectively stonewalling a congressional directive to reorganize the military’s health system. They now think it’s time to get much more prescriptive.

The 2017 bill ordered DoD to consolidate the administration of the more than 400 hospitals and clinics currently run by the Army, Navy and Air Force into a centralized management structure within the Defense Health Agency.

But in subsequent reports to Congress on how it’s complying with the law, DoD said it intended to set up a “compenent model” in which the military treatment facilities would ultimately report to the DHA director, but only through intermediary organizations that would still be controlled by the military services.

Lawmakers interpreted that plan as a thinly-veiled attempt to preserve the status quo, which they believe contains too many layers of management and makes the overall military health system difficult to coordinate.

“The department has again failed to provide a credible, detailed plan” to implement the 2017 law, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a report accompanying their version of the 2019 NDAA. “In the committee’s view, the plan fails to maximize interoperability as it does not fully integrate the medical capabilities of the services to enhance joint medical operations. The plan maintains the services’ medical departments and establishes new, stove-piped service commands whose responsibilities would be to oversee medical force readiness and to provide administrative support to military medical personnel, a function that could otherwise be effectively provided by other units reporting directly to the services’ line commanders.”

In response, the Senate bill would completely eliminate the top-level health care administrative organizations within the military departments — the Army Medical Command, the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and the Air Force Medical Service — and transfer all of their personnel to the Defense Health Agency.

From there, the bill would direct DoD to start organizing its medical system by geographic areas instead of by military service. It would create three joint “health readiness regions” in the continental U.S. and two more overseas.

The commanders of those regions, who would report directly to the DHA director, would need to create “regional hubs” at major military treatment facilities “to provide complex, specialized medical services.”

The bill would leave the positions of the military services’ surgeons general intact, but it would significantly roll back their responsibilities. It would restrict the military services’ medical role mostly to recruiting and training medical staff, ensuring that medical teams are ready to deploy to military operations, and providing logistics support for medical deployments.

The Senate in particular has had a long interest in consolidating military health management within DHA.

A provision in that chamber’s 2017 NDAA would have stripped the military services of their medical responsibilities almost entirely, but in a final compromise with the House, Senators agreed to only consolidate the management of brick-and-mortar military treatment facilities.

But language in this year’s bill makes clear that lawmakers do not believe DoD has given serious attention to even that more-limited mandate.

“The [department’s] plan would not fully eliminate duplicative activities carried out by the Defense Health Agency and the services’ medical departments,” Senators wrote. “For example, the plan would reduce total medical headquarters personnel by only 165 full-time equivalent positions — out of 6,400 total positions — through 2023. Clearly, the plan demonstrates that the services intend to maintain many, if not most, existing medical headquarters functions and current staffing levels while disregarding the call for innovation and efficiency included throughout the Department’s National Defense Strategy.”

In a separate section of the bill, lawmakers outline specific duties they want the DHA director to perform under the reorganized health apparatus, including:

  • Direct, control, and serve as the primary rater of the performance of commanders or directors of MTFs
  • Direct and control any intermediary organizations between the Defense Health Agency and MTFs
  • Determine the scope of medical care provided at each MTF to meet the military personnel readiness requirements of the senior military operational commander of the military installation
  • Determine total workforce requirements at each MTF
  • Direct joint manning at MTFs and intermediary organizations
  • Establish training and skills sustainment venues for military medical personnel
  • Address personnel staffing shortages at MTFs
  • Approve service nominations for commanders or directors of MTFs

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

Defense policy bill orders reforms to deal with security clearances, electronic warfare

A provision in the version of the 2019 Defense authorization bill the Senate passed Monday evening indicates lawmakers believe the Defense Department is dragging its feet on one of the largest business reforms Congress included in the 2017 edition of the annual bill: the creation of cross-functional teams.

The teams were supposed to bring more horizontal integration to Defense management, assembling leaders with expertise in various functional areas to help solve specific problems. The intent was for the CFTs to be empowered to come up with solutions that avoid DoD’s past tendency to find “consensus-seeking, lowest common-denominator” answers, according to the Senate’s language.

But so far, the Pentagon has stood up only one such team, according to the Government Accountability Office, which reported earlier this year DoD also hasn’t developed guidance or training for the CFT members — a specific requirement of the 2017 legislation.

In response, the Senate bill would give DoD’s CFTs specific problems to work on, while reiterating that lawmakers believe that the teams are an innovative management tool. Specifically, it would order DoD to set up CFTs on electronic warfare, security clearances, and the lethality of close-combat units.

“The committee appreciates the magnitude of change that the [2017 NDAA] mandated for the department, but continues to believe in the importance of promoting the cultural change enabled by CFTs across the department,” members of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a report explaining the provision. “Only by integrating diverse expertise will the department be able to meet its most pressing challenges.”

On electronic warfare, Senators said they wanted DoD to assemble experts from the military services, the Joint Staff, U.S. Strategic Command, and the offices of the undersecretaries for policy, acquisition and sustainment, research and engineering, and personnel to work on the problem full-time.

The committee wrote that it’s concerned potential adversaries are developing an “asymmetric advantage” over the U.S. military in the EW realm.

“The department continues to approach the electronic warfare mission area and electromagnetic spectrum operations in an uncoordinated and insufficient manner that risks lagging further behind adversary efforts,” according to the Senate report, which also calls for DoD to draw up a new roadmap that would include “an analysis of any personnel, resourcing, capability, authority, or other gaps to be addressed in order to ensure effective implementation of the strategy across all relevant elements of the department.”

As for security clearances, other sections of the bill would beef up the budget of the Defense Security Service —$18.6 million and 129 more civilian personnel than the department requested — as that organization prepares to take on the task of conducting background investigations for DoD personnel.

But lawmakers stressed that a successful transition of that work from the Office of Personnel Management will require business reforms in addition to new money.

“The department will need to conduct a review of existing policies and procedures for background investigations and insider threat detection and prevention, in favor of new technologies like continuous evaluation,” they wrote. “The only way for this transition to be successful is to have representation from all elements of the department engaged and for this group to have significant leadership backing.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers pointed out that Defense Secretary James Mattis has already stood up a task force on close-combat lethality, but expressed befuddlement that the secretary did not formally designate the group as one of its CFTs. The bill would order him to do so.

“With respect to the substantive work of this close-combat lethality cross-functional team, the committee concurs in the secretary’s judgment that the proliferation of technology has eroded the comparative advantage of the United States’ infantry close combat formations. The committee agrees also that the lethality and survivability of close combat formations is critical given that infantry formations have historically borne the majority of U.S. causalities in major conflicts despite comprising less than 5% of Department of Defense personnel.”

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

Senate votes to boost civilian oversight of special ops, reinforcing earlier mandate

It’s been two years since Congress approved legislation ordering increased civilian oversight over U.S. Special Operations Command. The goal was to strengthen the role of the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict, and order DoD to beef up the office’s staff.

Lawmakers are apparently not happy with the progress they’ve seen so far, and continue to believe SOCOM’s explosive growth over the past two decades has far outstripped DoD’s ability to effectively administer it.

Language in this year’s Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act would order SOCOM to transfer at least 50 of its civilian personnel to the office of the assistant secretary for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, along with millions of dollars in funding.

“The committee remains concerned that current civilian manpower within the ASD SOLIC is not sufficient to fulfill the ‘service secretary-like’ responsibilities for the advocacy and oversight of special operations forces,” Senators wrote.

In the 2017 NDAA, Congress reorganized the chain of command for special operations. It left operational matters in a chain that runs directly from SOCOM’s commander to the Secretary of Defense.

Meanwhile, the assistant secretary for SOLIC was supposed to begin performing many of the same leadership functions the secretaries of the military services do for the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. These include, for example, administrative oversight over manning and training, and setting acquisition policies particular to special operations.

However, an independent analysis performed by the Army Manpower Analysis Agency and delivered to Congress earlier this year found that the assistant secretary has just 14 full-time staff to handle those “service secretary-like” functions. The agency estimated the office needs at least 64 people to competently carry out those responsibilities.

Indeed, manpower estimates conducted 30 years ago – when SOCOM was first created – pegged the assistant secretary’s required workforce for all of the office’s functions at between 95 and 110 people. The assistant secretary’s office had just 60 personnel as of 2016 while SOCOM has roughly 2,500 people assigned to its Tampa headquarters.

“The assistant secretary and that office has remained weak, compared to its portfolio of responsibilities,” James Locher, who served as the first Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for SOLIC in the early 1990s said in a recent interview with Federal News Radio. “Meanwhile, Special Operations Command went from being seen as a backwater, to now, in the view of many people, being the most important command in the Department of Defense.”

More responsibilities, more oversight

Lawmakers’ rationale for insisting on increased civilian oversight over SOCOM has largely to do with the increased responsibilities the command has taken on in the past decade.

Most recently, DoD gave SOCOM the lead responsibility for countering weapons of mass destruction, a task previously entrusted to U.S. Strategic Command. But SOCOM’s role in many other areas of warfare has gone far beyond what lawmakers first imagined when they created a dedicated command for special operations.

Since 2001, its budget has nearly tripled to $13.6 billion while its personnel have nearly doubled to 70,000. Its overseas deployments have nearly quadrupled.

Locher, who served as a senior Senate Armed Services Committee staffer at the time SOCOM’s enabling legislation — the Nunn-Cohen Amendment — was passed, said Congress always intended the assistant secretary to play a strong oversight role. But the recent legislation should serve to reinforce that intent.

“The reason this was done in the first place is that special operations forces are removed from the operational control of their services when they’re under Special Operations Command, so it was decided that if you’re going to do that, you need someone to play that service secretary-like role,” he said. “The reason the Congress emphasized this is because special operations forces undertake some of the most sensitive activities in the U.S. military around the world, and the develop some of the most sensitive capabilities. It was decided that we needed a civilian overseer, and that was going to be the assistant secretary of Defense.”

Apart from expressing concern about insufficient staffing levels in the assistant secretary’s office, the Senate report said DoD has not gone far enough to implement the organizational changes Congress ordered in 2017.

Those mandates included that the Pentagon ensure the assistant secretary for SOLIC operate independently from the undersecretary for policy when it comes to administrative decisions for special operations forces.

“The committee is concerned that despite passage of [the NDAA] nearly 18 months ago, the implementation of the reforms … remain incomplete,” according to the Senate report. “The deputy secretary of Defense directed the development of recommendations for implementation of these reforms, but no substantive actions have been taken since. Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of Defense, beginning on July 1, 2018, and continuing on the first day of every month thereafter until full implementation of the ASD SOLIC reforms, to provide the congressional defense committees with monthly progress reports on specific actions taken to institutionalize the ASD SOLIC’s role.”

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

NDAA would let DoD onboard new cyber officers at much higher pay grades

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Last fall, when the Army announced it was launching a direct commissioning program to attract civilian cyber experts into its officer corps, officials said they wanted to start small. The fast-track program, which is designed to attract software engineers, developers and security pros who might not otherwise consider military service, would only commission five officers in its first year.

As it turns out, five may have been too ambitious a goal. Earlier this month, the Army granted its first set of commissions under the new program. It selected just two out of more than 80 applicants, and both of them have previously served in uniform.

The low uptake rate is another potential indicator of a problem multiple senior military officials have already acknowledged: under current law, the services are only allowed to count applicants’ outside expertise for up to three years of “constructive credit” when assigning them their first military ranks.

In most cases, that’s meant the highest pay grade they can offer is first lieutenant, in the case of the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, or lieutenant junior grade in the Navy. In other words, base pay of roughly $43,000 per year for people who are already trained in one of the most competitive career fields in the U.S. economy.

That may be about to change, however. The version of the annual Defense authorization bill currently making its way through the House of Representatives would boost the amount of credit the military can grant for private sector experience or advanced education, letting them grant cyber direct commissions up to the rank of O-6, an Army colonel or Navy captain.

A theoretical candidate starting as an O-6 would get approximately $80,000 per year in base pay. In a high-cost living area like Washington, D.C., the housing allowance included at that rank would provide an additional $40,000.

The provision, which was initially requested by the Pentagon, was inserted into the bill by the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel. Thus far, no lawmakers have filed amendments in opposition to the proposal, making it likely that it will survive at least a vote of the full House.

The change would also make it easier for DoD to use the authority. Currently, the military services have to attest that they have a “critical shortage” of officers with cyber expertise before offering direct commissions to outsiders. The legislation would remove the word “critical.”

The Pentagon estimates the change would draw in roughly 85 new officers each year: 10 in the Army, 25 in the Navy and 50 in the Air Force.

Aside from making it easier for the military services to attract civilian experts, the Defense Department argues it the proposal would cost nothing to implement. In fact, because of the way the military’s pay scales work, it would most likely save a small amount of money — about $1 million per year.

That’s because federal law limits the number of officers that can be serving on active duty at any given time. Since the newly-commissioned officers’ salaries would be set at the within-grade pay scales for less than two years of service, they would be replacing slots the military services are currently using for officers who have more time in service, and whose base pay is higher. The difference amounts to about $48,000 per year for a theoretical O-6 with 22 years of service, compared to a new officer who’s just beginning their military career at that rank.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, who became the new commander of U.S. Cyber Command earlier this month, testified at his confirmation hearing in March that the rank limitations of the current program do seem to be a barrier.

“If you are a high-end big data or forensics malware analyst, being able to get more credit for that service to bring you in at a higher rank will allow us to probably bring in higher level of talent,” said Nakasone, who was then the commander of Army Cyber Command. “This is an early program, but that’s the early results that we’ve seen.”

Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel, expressed a similar sentiment during a panel discussion last month, saying the military can’t hope to compete with private sector IT salaries under the current program.

“However, the mission is a draw. People want to do this because service to the nation is important to them,” he said. “So we don’t have to pay dollar for dollar, but we do sort of have to be in the ballpark, maybe the right number of digits, for example. So a little more time in grade credit, and being able to lateral-enter as an officer for those kind of software engineering skills would be the right help that we would be seeking.”

If Congress does nothing, the military will lose its cyber direct commissioning program altogether. The existing authority was created as a pilot program, and is set to expire on Dec. 31.

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Army may seek its own authority to hire military spouses, bypassing OPM

In an executive order earlier this month, the president ordered federal agencies to step up their hiring of military spouses, mostly by using authorities they already have to prioritize them as job candidates.

But the Army may attempt to go further than that, and seek changes that would let it help solve the unemployment problem by hiring more of those spouses itself.

Mark Esper, the Army secretary, told Congress last week that it currently takes the government an average of 140 days to process employment applications for soldiers’ spouses. That’s a particular problem for families who have to relocate every two or three years, then start the cycle all over again.

“[The wait] is unacceptably high, and I’ve undertaken a series of initiatives that I can control myself within the Army to reduce the hiring time,” he told the Senate appropriations committee. “There are some things that I will eventually elevate to DoD. But then there are some things that I cannot fix, because it’s resident in [the Office of Personnel Management] and how OPM does it. So if it were possible to move that hiring authority either to DoD or the Department of the Army, we would be able to really accelerate our ability to hire spouses and civilians at large.”

According to a new report by the Council of Economic Advisors, military spouses are far less likely to be employed than demographically-comparable segments of the general population, and those that do work earn significantly less than the rest of the American labor force, despite having, on average, higher education levels.

The council, which based its findings mostly on Census data, found that 40 percent of military spouses have a college degree, compared to 30 percent in the rest of the working-age U.S. population. But only 57 percent of them are active labor market participants, compared to 76 percent for the rest of the country.

“Differences in age, sex, race, and ethnicity, cannot account for the gap between military spouses and their peers,” according to the report. “Indeed, accounting for these differences raises the labor force participation gap. And because labor force participation rises with education, controlling for education further increases the gap between participation for military spouses and what would be expected given their demographics.”

The CEA also cited a separate DoD study — largely confirmed by its own analysis of Census data — which found military spouses earn an average of $17,000 less per year than other demographically-similar workers in the broader U.S. economy. Even excluding part-time workers, the council found military spouses who work full-time suffer a 3.4 percent “earnings penalty” by virtue of frequent moves.

Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, said the service is considering other policy changes that might have an impact on those figures, including by cutting down on the number of moves a military family might have to make during the course of a career.

“That’s a challenge for the Army, but that is probably the biggest impediment to stabilizing spousal employment in a local area,” he said. The constant churn of two or three year reassignments works against spousal employment. It’s very difficult. In the enlisted force, we think we can probably achieve longer than three year assignments. For the officers, it’s significantly more challenging because of the career development opportunities that we want for our officers.”

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Wilkie’s nomination for VA secretary leaves giant hole in DoD’s personnel operation

Senators and veterans groups have started signaling that they are receptive to President Donald Trump’s unexpected decision to nominate Robert Wilkie as the next secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department.

It is conceivable that Wilkie — whom the president appointed to lead VA on an interim basis after firing David Shulkin — will be confirmed as its permanent secretary in a matter of weeks.

If and when that happens, it will leave a gaping hole in the leadership of the Defense Department’s personnel shop, the organization which the Senate confirmed Wilkie to lead in March. The office of the undersecretary for personnel and readiness has five Senate-confirmable positions and up until now, Wilkie’s seat was the only one the Trump administration had managed to fill.

The Obama administration also had a great deal of trouble hiring and keeping political appointees in the P&R office: 11 different people served in the undersecretary job in either a permanent or acting capacity from 2009 though the end of last year.

Confirmation process not worth it?

The difficulty in staffing the office is wildly out of proportion with the Pentagon’s expenditures and stated priorities. About half of the department’s budget goes to personnel, and Defense Secretary James Mattis has prioritized the restoration of readiness as part of the administration’s first national defense strategy.

The easy explanation for that mismatch is that very few people are willing to endure a Senate confirmation process in order to take a job that has not proven itself to be especially influential within the Pentagon in recent years, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The secretariat is too far gone to be saved at this point, absent a bold and dramatic leader empowered by the secretary of Defense, and backed with political ammunition to break glass inside the bureaucracy,” she said.

Candidates for those leadership positions, she argued, are much more likely to be drawn toward senior jobs that the Pentagon has clearly demonstrated that it cares about and whose views will inform decision making, such as the undersecretary for policy or the two separate undersecretariats that now make up DoD’s acquisition bureaucracy.

In an op-ed last fall, Eaglen and Todd Harrison, another of Washington’s most respected defense scholars, argued that it is time to eliminate P&R altogether.

They argued that the office has tended to serve as a bureaucratic bulwark against the sorts of personnel policy reforms the Pentagon needs in order to recruit and retain a 21st century workforce, mostly finding reasons to say ‘no’ to proposals from the military services.

The one recent exception was Brad Carson, the Obama administration undersecretary who spearheaded then-Defense secretary Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative, but was ultimately forced to resign. This was mostly because DoD had failed to adequately consult with Congress before launching the project.

“Congress’ sharp reaction to Carson’s smart push for meaningful reforms is somewhat understandable given P&R’s history of banality,” Eaglen and Harrison wrote. “Lawmakers weren’t used to the office serving as a fount of fresh ideas. With the exception of Force of the Future, most of the major personnel policy changes in recent memory have come from outside the Pentagon, mainly from Congress and independent commissions.”

It is hard to say whether the Trump administration’s failure to fill the P&R office with appointees that might carry out its personnel policies spring from a general lack of attention to the personnel shop, or difficulties in recruiting qualified candidates who might be willing to go through the confirmation process.

It is, inherently, a political process, a lesson Dean Winslow learned at a confirmation hearing last November.

Winslow is a former Air Force combat surgeon whose service included six overseas deployments, and is now a professor of medicine at Stanford University. His nomination to be the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs appeared to be on an easy glidepath.

But he doomed his chance to be confirmed when, in response to a question about the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last year he opined that civilians should be restricted from purchasing semiautomatic rifles.

“I’m very disappointed that I won’t be able to serve,” Winslow told Stanford’s newspaper, The Daily. “The fact is, I stand by what I said at the hearing.”

Since then, the Trump administration has nominated just one other official to serve in DoD’s personnel shop: James Stewart, who would serve as the department’s assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.

In his own confirmation hearing on May 10, Stewart, a retired Air Force major general, appeared alongside several other nominees and did not commit any gaffes. If he is confirmed by the full Senate before Wilkie officially departs for VA, he will be the sole senate-confirmed official within DoD’s personnel and readiness office.

In the meantime, P&R still has all of the legal responsibilities Congress assigned it: to be the Defense secretary’s principal advisor for personnel matters. For the time being, it’s being led by highly-capable career civil servants with no particular political bent.

The obvious downside is that those officials, almost by definition, aren’t empowered to devise or implement anything particularly innovative: their main function is to faithfully maintain the personnel policies that are currently on the books.

I asked Eaglen: Isn’t this a nightmare scenario if you believe P&R ought to be disposed of altogether? After all, the bureaucracy is still intact, but the whole thing is being run by, well, actual bureaucrats instead of politically-appointed officials who are supposed to be responsive to the current administration’s priorities.

“This is a terrible state of affairs,” she said. “I should caveat it by saying, however, that the bureaucracy of P&R knows how to keep the trains running on time all too well actually without a person at the top. And that is part of the problem. In recent times, the office is regularly without a political appointee. It has had too many ‘acting’ officials leading it, which has its own deleterious effects that span changes in administrations.”

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