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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Trump administration backs House proposal for Amazon-style government ‘marketplaces’

The Trump administration is throwing its weight behind a congressional proposal that would largely bypass the government’s existing mechanisms for buying commercial goods, giving a full-throated endorsement to the idea of Amazon-like “marketplaces” for federal purchasing.

The General Services Administration has worked closely with Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on his proposal to require the government to create new business deals with at least two companies that already run commercial e-commerce platforms, said Alan Thomas, the newly-appointed commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

“We are pretty excited about the Thornberry bill and the ability of the commercial marketplaces and GSA’s role to sort of sponsor and broker those and help make those work within the construct of the federal procurement system,” he told a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee last week. “We think that’s a real step in the right direction, and from our standpoint, we’re supportive.”

The initial draft proposal for the marketplaces would have applied only to the Defense Department, but the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act that passed the full House last week would implement them governmentwide. The legislation would order GSA to contract with “two or more” companies that run existing online e-commerce portals so that federal agencies could use them to quickly purchase commercial goods.

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McCain, Reed float trial balloon for another BRAC round

In what may turn out to be a thaw in the years-long congressional refusal to even consider the possibility of conducting another round of military base realignments and closures (BRAC), two key senators are circulating draft legislation that could finally authorize a BRAC-like process in 2021.

BRAC-like, because the draft proposal being quietly floated by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, differs in several major ways from the BRAC process Congress has used five times since 1988 to overcome the political difficulties of closing bases.

McCain has criticized that process in recent months, saying it’s an “act of cowardice” for members of Congress not to be involved in decisions about which bases to close.

So, for starters, the new round would skip the part of the process that involves an independent BRAC commission. Historically, those panels have been placed in charge of reviewing DoD’s list of recommended base closures, scrutinizing them in nationwide public hearings, determining whether they meet the objectives Congress has laid out for the closure round in question, revising the list, and then submitting it to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

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In quest to replace Common Access Card, DoD starts testing behavior-based authentication

A year after then-chief information officer Terry Halvorsen first publicly floated the idea of killing DoD’s Common Access Card in favor of a collection of more flexible authentication technologies, the Pentagon is beginning to test drive at least one of the potential replacements for the CAC.

Last week, the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental reached an agreement with Plurilock Technologies, a Victoria, British Columbia-based firm that holds several patents on behavior-based authentication (or, “behaviour-based,” to our friends to the north).

The company claims that after spending about 20 minutes monitoring and analyzing the specific patterns people engage in when using their computers — particularly their habits when pressing keys on their keyboards and their mouse movement techniques — its software can build a reliable digital fingerprint for any user that can be used later on to sound an alarm when an impostor is logged onto a system using someone else’s credentials.

“Human behavior has a degree of variability — it’s organic,” Plurilock’s CEO, Ian Paterson said in an interview. “A person may have had coffee in the morning, they may be tired at the end of the day, but they still retain unique characteristics, and that’s what we track.”

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Senate’s version of NDAA penalizes underperforming software programs, orders fixes

Last week’s Senate markup of that chamber’s version of the annual Defense authorization bill was conducted with even more secrecy than usual, so it will be another few days before we see the actual text of the legislation the Senate Armed Services Committee approved. But it includes several provisions that are meant to crack down on what committee members believe is wasteful spending on software programs (and hardware programs that are highly dependent on software).

Perhaps most significantly, the Senate version of the NDAA would completely eliminate funding for the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, the family of airborne, satellite and land-based communications systems the service has described as the backbone of its future tactical network. The Army has already spent $6 billion on WIN-T and had requested more than $400 million to continue developing and fielding its second increment in 2018. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s chairman, recently characterized the program as a “debacle.”

The committee’s decision was largely based on an independent report on WIN-T’s progress and status that Congress first commissioned two years ago. The results are now in, according to a congressional staff member who described them as “damning,” though they have not yet been made public.

“Our intent is to give the Army some space to take a look at the entire [tactical] network. It’s not just WIN-T, it’s the entire network, which is a very complicated thing,” said a second senior staffer who described the bill and the committee’s thinking to reporters on condition of anonymity. “The report is rather clear about the concerns, which, by the way, are the same concerns the chief of staff of the Army has.”

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To fund benefits for families of fallen service members, Congress looks to hike pharmacy costs

Come next year, military retirees and family members might be required to kick in a few extra dollars when filling their drug prescriptions in order to fund a benefit program for military widows and widowers that’s perilously close to running out of money.

The program, known as the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA), currently pays $310 per month to about 63,000 Americans whose spouses died either on active duty or during retirement after having paid into DoD’s Survivor Benefits Plan. The fund that pays the SSIA benefits is due to expire next May, and at the moment, there’s no plan to replenish it.

In recent years, Congress has patched over the problem with short-term workarounds, but in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted last week to create a long-term funding stream for SSIA, paid by higher pharmacy copays in DoD’s TRICARE program.

The exact amount of the proposed fee hikes is unclear, since, as of this writing, the committee has not released the full text of the bill it approved. But an executive summary committee staff distributed on May 29 advertises the measure as a “permanent” fix to the SSIA program.

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18 down, 35 to go: White House begins to pick up pace on Defense political nominations

After a period of several months in which James Mattis was the Trump Administration’s sole political appointee in the Pentagon, the nomination and confirmation process for Defense Department nominees finally appears to be picking up a bit of steam, and Mattis says more nominations are on the way.

As of this time a month ago, only five prospective Defense officials were even in the confirmation process. But since then, the Senate has confirmed David Norquist as the DoD comptroller and chief financial officer, Elaine McCusker as his principal deputy, Heather Wilson as the secretary of the Air Force, Kari Bingen as the principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence, Kenneth Rapuano as assistant secretary for homeland defense, and Robert Story Karem as assistant secretary for international security affairs.

And this week, the Senate will hold confirmation hearings for Richard Spencer, Trump’s latest pick for secretary of the Navy and Patrick Shanahan, the nominee for deputy secretary of Defense. Shanahan’s confirmation would pave the way for the belated retirement of the current deputy, Bob Work, one of only a handful of holdovers from the Obama administration.

Also, on Friday, the president announced his intent to nominate John H. Gibson as DoD’s deputy chief management officer, a job that’s due to be elevated to the new position of chief management officer under legislation that takes effect next February. Gibson is the former president and CEO of XCOR Aerospace, a firm that makes space launch systems.

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DoD reexamining cloud policies to remove bottleneck for sensitive data

For more than two years, the Defense Department has had procedures in place that, at least on paper, allow its sensitive data be housed in commercial cloud computing facilities. But migrations to the cloud have been relatively few and far between for anything besides public, unclassified data.

That’s partially because for impact levels 4 and above, not only do providers have to earn authorizations that go above-and-beyond the governmentwide FedRAMP process, any data they process also has to make its way through a DoD-provided Cloud Access Point (CAP).

The department is taking a fresh look at that latter point, saying its current CAP policies may be creating an unnecessary roadblock to DoD’s cloud ambitions. As of now, there are only two access points in existence – one run by the Defense Information Systems Agency and one by the Navy.

Dr. John Zangardi, the department’s acting chief information officer said he’s asked his office to revisit the policy with an eye toward letting commercial cloud vendors provide a CAP-like capability on their own.

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DoD says contracts in place for its first full-scale financial audit

The Congressionally-mandated deadline for the Defense Department to declare its financial statements to be in “audit-ready” condition is just a little over three months away, and last week, lawmakers got their first assurance from DoD’s newly-confirmed comptroller that the department will, in fact, comply.

David Norquist, who was confirmed by the Senate as undersecretary of Defense (comptroller and CFO) less than a month ago, told the House Armed Services Committee that full audits of Defense components and an overarching audit of each of DoD’s financial statements would take place in 2018. The department has already made arrangements with independent public accounting firms to conduct the work, he said.

“Most of those contracts are already awarded. There’s one or two that are awaiting to be finalized and awarded, but we have every expectation to be fully compliant and fully under audit,” Norquist said.

Of course, placing the department under audit and having it actually pass an audit are very different matters. No one in the Pentagon is willing to forecast that DoD will earn a clean opinion during its first couple of years of full-scale audits.

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Navy: money, workforce growth alone won’t fix ship maintenance problems

The Navy’s 2018 budget request includes a billion more dollars and a thousand new employees to help the service dig out of an ongoing ship maintenance backlog. Trouble is, the Navy’s current training regimen for new depot maintenance workers takes about five years before they’re ready to work, and officials say they need to find ways to speed that process up.

The Navy’s focus on maintenance is part of a broader plan to increase the readiness of the force in 2018 before it releases plans to begin building up the size of the fleet in 2019.

The workforce growth at the Navy’s four public shipyards would continue a hiring trend that began in 2017. By the end of next year, the service plans to increase its depot maintenance staff from 33,850 to 34,988, and eventually to 36,100 over the next few years.

Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command said the 2018 maintenance budget – $9.7 billion – is an unprecedented amount, and although he welcomes it, money alone won’t solve the Navy’s maintenance challenges. He said the public shipyards’ workforce needs to get more efficient, and new hires need to be able to get to the point where they can perform productive work more quickly than they can today.

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DoD’s acting acquisition chief looks to purge ‘the stupid’ from IT procurement

The new administration’s extended transition process has led to an unusual circumstance in which there are literally zero politically-appointed acquisition officials anywhere in the Defense Department. Such a scenario might seem like an unlikely time for DoD to make major changes to the way it buys information technology, but that’s exactly what the career civil servant who’s currently leading the department’s vast acquisition apparatus hopes to do over the next year.

James MacStravic, who’s currently performing the duties of undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics says he plans to spend the next year trying to drive out what he calls “the stupid” from DoD’s IT buying practices. By that, he mostly means the department’s tendency to apply processes that were designed for complex weapons systems – including massive, slow delivery increments and exhaustive testing procedures – to commercial IT.

“We do not have instructions, we do not have governance mechanisms that are informed by the current state of practice — never mind the current state of the art,” he told a conference hosted by AFCEA’s northern Virginia chapter last week. “What we’re going to try to do over the next year, hopefully with the assistance of industry, is change those models.”

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