DoD’s biggest challenges moving forward

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The armed services and the Pentagon that oversees them have some basic challenges as they return to great power competition. Everything from a basic lethality advantage to financial management. They’re all spelled out in the latest list from the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Leo FitzHarris, the assistant IG for strategic planning and performance.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. FitzHarris, good to have you on.

Leo FitzHarris: Good morning Tom. It’s nice to be on. Thank you.

Tom Temin: So this report is 110 pages, and it’s something you do annually.

Leo FitzHarris: That’s correct. The top management challenges is a statutory requirement that’s included in the DoD’s agency financial report, that is the Department of Defense inspector general’s independent assessment of the most significant performance and management challenges facing the department. And we identify these challenges through outreach with both the Hill and the Department of Defense senior leadership, coordinating with our other oversight partners, and what’s generally in the public’s best interest.

Tom Temin: Sure. And so by the time this hits the military establishment, so to speak, there should be probably no surprises to anyone about what it is that you found are the top challenges.

Leo FitzHarris: That’s correct. The DoD is aware of all of the challenges. In fact, several of them, over half, are what I would call legacy challenges where they’ve been in prior year versions. This year, we did introduce three new ones dealing with technology, non-traditional threats and information as a strategic asset. But those ones that are enduring deal with ethics, financial management, space missile nukes and great power competition, and combating terrorism. And then, most importantly, the health and welfare of our servicemembers.

Tom Temin: Sure. And I want to get to the top of the list, which is maintaining the advantage, balancing great power, competition — with the ongoing need to battle terrorism worldwide. And those take different strategies, in some cases, different equipment, different training, and so forth. And this has been on the list, I guess, for a little while now. But it mentions the eroded and atrophied capabilities of the armed services. Just briefly, what’s going on this year with that particular challenge?

Leo FitzHarris: So I think it’s important to understand that near peer-great power competition does take a completely different set of strategies to man, train and equip to address those threats as opposed to a counterterrorism, which we have been engaged in for the last 20 years. That can include not only basic individual skills, but also equipment, as you mentioned, and different strategies and plans.

Tom Temin: Could it be also that the so called great powers that the Defense Department is worried about, I guess primarily Russia and China, would know, what capabilities have been honed in the past 20 years of these terrorism related wars, and therefore, their own tactics would be devised to not present themselves in the same way, knowing what the American forces have gotten good at.

Leo FitzHarris: I think that may be part of it, great power competition, they have a completely different set of resources. When you’re combating terrorism, small unit, they have less resources, and clearly China and Russia in terms of technology are far superior than those other what we call in the report rougue nations.

Tom Temin: I want to move on to the nuclear triad challenge. Again, this is something that you look at periodically. I know GAO looks at it periodically. The military itself looks at it periodically. I guess my question is, they need to sustain the still elements of the triad, but it seems like a lot of that is out of control of the military in the sense that the resources for it vary a lot, depending on Congress, and the administrations, and they have different views of what should be invested in the military in the nuclear triad. So what are the major challenges on that front?

Leo FitzHarris: In terms of the nuclear triad, there are a few challenges as with anything, the Department of Defense has a an appropriation or an authorization as well. So you have a budget ceiling, right. And so as you work through not only maintaining your capabilities, current capabilities, but you’re also trying to modernize — both of those take resources, both in people as well as in funding. The existing triad, you know, subs, bombers, ballistic missiles, to include the command and control are all well past their initial planned service life. For example, like the B-52, which I think first entered service in 1961. And then as you’re transitioning to these new capabilities, the Columbia class or the long range bomber, both of these things are brand new platforms. And with acquisition of new platforms come challenges in terms of the acquisition process itself, cost schedule and performance to deliver those new capabilities.

Tom Temin: And earlier you mentioned that there were three new challenges added to the annual list this year, just remind us what those were.

Leo FitzHarris: So the new topics of this year that were added deal with emerging technologies, the one we just started talking about, building and sustaining our technological dominance. The other one deals with non-traditional threats. Traditionally, the Department of Defense talks about kinetic, non kinetic military issues. However, this strengthening resiliency to non traditional threats is focused on pandemics, extreme weather events, as well as the impact of those, one of the focus areas in that particular challenge deals with the Arctic. And the last one is transforming data into a strategic asset, which is harnessing all of the data that we have and transforming that into operational information that senior leaders can use to make timely and informed decisions.

Tom Temin: And in many ways, those three have interrelated element because technological dominance may depend on the use of data to some extent, and non-traditional threats equally can be measured using data. And so do you see a theme? I see a theme in all three of those that kind of connects them.

Leo FitzHarris: I would agree. All of the management challenges, there is a current, an undercurrent or a narrative thread that runs through the challenges document itself. And it should all tie back to why are these particular topics that we’ve identified, these 10 topics, a significant performance and management challenge to the department completing its mission.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about another element that has a mission that’s old, but a new structure to deal with it. And that is space and the space domain. Now we have a Space Force. And you comment in the report on what the Space Force needs to be effective. It’s still pretty new and I think they just barely got their uniform colors and shapes figured out. But now that they’re starting to be funding and dedicated personnel to the Space Force, what needs to happen next? What’s the challenge there?

Leo FitzHarris: So as we write in the document, the challenge to Space Force, whenever you’re creating a new component, putting in leadership, which was authorized under the 2020 National Defense Authorization, provided a certain manning level. But there’s also a lot of intangibles that go on there in terms of governance functions, how do you do acquisitions, how do you integrate these different acquisition pipelines that are already in existence in the military departments — or in the case of the space Development Agency, is under the undersecretary of defense for Research and Engineering. And so there’s a lot of coordination, integration definition of roles and responsibilities that has to occur on top of actually manning and then beginning to move forward with the Space Force.

Tom Temin: In many ways, the space force reflects issues that the federal government writ large, even outside of DoD has had since the inception. And that is when you create whole new departments or whole new divisions, and whole new bureaus, it takes a long time for those to get sorted out vis-à-vis the existing structures.

Leo FitzHarris: I think you’re correct. In all of these cases, you have a lot of talented individuals who are trying to do their best and working towards a one common goal. But there are a lot of things that are perhaps outside of their control as it relates to resourcing, or there have to be partners in the creation of these new entities.

Tom Temin: And I want to talk about something you’ve also touched on briefly a few moments ago, and that is aging platforms and the long development times and costs of new platforms. This came to mind recently, I happen to have a trip aboard the USS Gerald Ford, the latest super carrier, it’s almost ready to be deployed. I think the keel was first laid on that boat more than a decade ago. And it takes four or five years of acceptance and testing before it’s actually battle ready and can be deployed. And what is the report say about that whole topic of how long it takes from the conception of a new platform to its deployment and the costs associated there too?

Leo FitzHarris: So this year, we approach acquisition a little differently. We combined it with the supply chain and defense industrial base. And mostly in talking in terms of data rights, understanding what we’re paying for, making sure that we have a good requirements driven process. We didn’t highlight any specific platform in terms of cost schedule performance in the document.

Tom Temin: So it sounds like the report this year got you out of the specific platform, this fighter, that ship, that airplane, into a higher level discussion of the whole topic.

Leo FitzHarris: That’s correct. Across the whole management challenges document, the DoD IG made a very conscious effort to really focus on the strategic challenges that relates to all the topics that are listed.

Tom Temin: Chances are the Pentagon knows what issues it has with respect to how long it takes to develop this or that platform anyhow.

Leo FitzHarris: That’s correct. Our job in performing independent oversight of DoD programs and operations, is to provide that objective lens, look at trending and allow the department and their leadership to implement the changes based on our actionable recommendations.

Tom Temin: And then there’s the topic of cyberspace, a big one that’s dominated DoD now for a long time. And what does the report say about the cyberspace question? That is to say, the operation of DoD in cyberspace offensively, as well as defensively to protect DoD’s own networks and data.

Leo FitzHarris: So the cyber challenge this year talks a lot about those particular topics, both offensive and defensive, but more so about securing the DoDIN. How do we do that? How do we implement best practices as it relates to cyber hygiene, credentialing accounts, security roles? And we’ve issued, DoD IG has issued several reports on that and a follow up audit in particular. But we also talked about us cyber comms unified platform and use that as an example, I guess to your prior question, as it relates to when you’re developing these new technologies and trying to create an enterprise asset, sometimes there are delays, sometimes there are increases in costs as you’re implementing that. And the unified platform is really vital to or is the department’s approach to centralizing multi domain operations. And by that I mean space, air, land, ground, sea, and cyber — and synchronizing and integrating actions, both offensive and defensive. in that space.

Tom Temin: I guess in looking at that particular one, you have a lot of common ground with the Government Accountability Office. I think your report cites some of the GAO reports on that very topic.

Leo FitzHarris: We do we do use GAO’s work. As I mentioned, we talk about sort of the cost of implementing the unified platform. And they have written an issue to report on that.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about the troops, what are the top issues for the health and well being of troops, because basically, you could say that’s the fundamental issue, you take care of that and everything else kind of fixes itself?

Leo FitzHarris: Right. This year is health and safety is a combination of both military health care, as well as some of the issues that we used last year on health and wellness. Obviously, the impact of the pandemic and taking care of our people is included, and the military health care reform, specifically as it relates to the defense health activities, the control of medical treatment facilities, which is transitioning from the military departments to the defense health activity. As well as the effectiveness of the MHS Genesis, which is the system that they’re using for electronic health records to make sure that everything is deconflicted and properly documented.

Tom Temin: Yeah, in some ways, the MHS Genesis project brings together a lot of the challenges in terms of costs and schedule and making sure the requirements stay under control. And it does ultimately affect the health and well being of troops. In some ways, that’s one of the central challenges they’ve got is to getting that thing really deployed in the right way, in some reasonable amount of speed, I would say.

Leo FitzHarris: Correct. And obviously, the DHA’s data is something that we look at quite frequently from our data analytics perspective, as it relates to improper charges, overcharging, health care fraud, and so forth. Other topics in that health and safety arena, obviously, are things that we have focused on for some time, deal with substance abuse and suicide prevention. One that we’ve added and with particular focus this year is our environmental hazards dealing with military housing, as well as PFAS or those forever chemicals and open burn pits.

Tom Temin: Got it. Yes and DoD has been dealing with those for some years now. And they’ve had different programs and different even legislation with respect to the housing. Sounds like you’re saying, don’t let go with this one because it’s not solved and it’s something that’s almost perennial.

Leo FitzHarris: That’s correct. It’s one of those enduring. And obviously, the health and safety of our military service members and their families is a priority for the Department of Defense.

Tom Temin: And this report is a great read, I wish we could go through every page in it. But I wanted to ask you about financial management, which I don’t know it seems impervious to solving because I’ve been watching it at least 25 years, the different attempts to modernize financial management, financial systems. What’s going on there?

Leo FitzHarris: So the DoD OIG recently issued the financial statement audit for 2020. We’ve sustained our unmodified opinions for seven organizations and believe that we’re going to have one additional one. Over the last year, DoD has resolved 530 findings from the FY 19 audits, and are working hard as it relates to all of those findings and streamlining and standardizing processes to maintain asset visibility, fund balance with Treasury and looking for fraud.

Tom Temin: So progress, but still some ways to go.

Leo FitzHarris: That’s correct. The Department of Defense has hundreds of financial systems that deal with financial management. And as the department is looking to consolidate and collapse as part of their reform efforts, I think we’ll see continued improvement in financial management in the Department of Defense.

Tom Temin: And a final question, pretty soon there’s going to be a new Secretary of Defense. And there’s been sort of a parade of them, I guess, in the last few years, but presuming someone will walk in for the new administration, do you ever secretly say to yourself, here’s what you’re really need to look at first. What would that be?

Leo FitzHarris: Well, I think our document lays out what are the significant challenges to the Department of Defense, regardless of who’s in the Secretary’s position. We have a good national defense strategy that lays out our strategic goals, those three, then drive all those subordinate plans and operations. And so I think if I were to sit down and talk with that person, I would say please take a look at these. I think some of them we have well in hand and have good strategies to take care of. I think in other areas, there are opportunities.

Tom Temin: Leo FitzHarris is the Defense Department’s Assistant Inspector General for strategic planning and performance. Thanks so much for joining me.

Leo FitzHarris: Thank you, I appreciate the time.

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