Inside the DoD Reporter's Notebook: Air Force budget cuts, military readiness, DoD mobility

Monday - 5/19/2014, 3:15am EDT

"Inside the DoD's Reporter's Notebook" is biweekly feature focused on news about the Defense Department and defense community as gathered by Federal News Radio DoD Reporter Jared Serbu.

Submit your ideas, suggestions and news tips to Jared via email.


Parochialism and its effects on personnel decisions

One of the interesting and oft-noted aspects of the Defense Department's current budget troubles is that Congress is requiring DoD to make significant budget reductions while simultaneously refusing to let the Pentagon cut any of the things that it's actually spending money on.

Here's one of the many effects of that phenomenon from the area of Air Force personnel spending: The service has been saying for the last couple years that it's going to need to shrink in size, even if sequestration were repealed.

So Air Force leaders have made the decision to start downsizing now and reduce their end strength quickly, down to the size they think they can afford under the budgets they see in the years ahead. However, the workforce cuts officials say they are making right now are being done "surgically" and in alignment with the program decisions they've made in their budget, reducing manpower in areas where less of it will be needed in the future. For example, if the A-10 aircraft is headed for retirement, the Air Force's demand for A-10 crew chiefs is definitely going to diminish.

That is, unless Congress tells the Air Force it can't retire the A-10, as the House Armed Services Committee did in its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month.

Service leaders are concerned decisions like that will force them to keep military hardware they can't afford, but also plays havoc with their workforce plans.

"If we end up having to retain some kind of force structure, then the manpower's going to have to come with it," Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services said at an Air Force Association breakfast this week. "That's required, otherwise we end up with a broken force. That's why we're sizing this so that whatever the size of the force is, we'll be ready. When you start adding these other things back in, we're not balanced."

The Air Force believes it can afford a force of about 310,900 active duty airmen — about 20,000 fewer than it has right now, and about the same number of personnel it had when it first became a separate service in 1947. Cox said leaders believe they need to accomplish those reductions quickly and finish the drawdown by the end of fiscal 2015.

In the reserve components, the Air Force thinks it can achieve the reductions it wants through natural attrition, but it's taking additional measures to manage the active duty force.

The Air Force plans to cut recruiting by 14 percent in 2015. Cox said officials decided not to take those accession cuts any further because they learned from a mistake they made in 2005 when they reduced recruiting by 30 percent: that decision has left a "bathtub" in the ranks of today's mid-grade airmen.

But the Air Force is also using what Cox called a "surgical" process of involuntary separation and bonus severance payments to encourage certain airmen to leave early.

"We created these matrices that look at every pay grade and [Air Force Specialty Code] and whether there's an overage of personnel in each of those," he said. "If you have an underage in a specific AFSC, we don't want to reduce those folks. Like battlefield airmen and fighter pilots. We don't have enough. So we don't even want to allow them to volunteer to separate."

Cox said the incentive payments have gone a long way toward minimizing the number of airmen who are being forced out involuntarily. Those who are at risk of being separated against their wishes are being given six months' notice before a decision is made, and if they're selected for discharge, another four more months before they're required to leave.


Readiness takes a hit in House NDAA

One more note on "balance" and the House NDAA: Given that the budget caps are what they are, the military's service chiefs have been warning the Hill for months that if they decide to protect the weapons platforms DoD has proposed to dispense with, math dictates that the money is going to have to come from somewhere else, and the most likely candidate, by far, is military readiness.

The NDAA the House Armed Services Committee passed earlier this month seems to bear that principle out.

Not to pick on the A-10, but the bill appropriates $635 million to keep that program up and running against the Air Force's wishes. House members also found $796 million to refuel the carrier U.S.S. George Washington, which the Navy says it will need to retire unless Congress gives it more money than sequestration allows.

Along with a few accounting gimmicks like paying for enduring military hardware with Afghanistan wartime funds, readiness was one of the main billpayers, as Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee's ranking Democrat lamented during debate on the NDAA.

"This bill has $1.4 billion less in readiness than the President's budget had," he said. "We primarily get there because we move money around and try to forestall some of the tougher decisions that are coming. I know there's the hope that OCO will make up some of that money, but it's more problematic when we get out to 2016, 2017 and 2018. What we're doing here by delaying these choices is saving programs where the one-year costs may be small, but these things save a lot more money over the next five years than they do next year. I share the concern about going from 11 carriers down to 10, but if we don't start to find savings in some other areas, we're going to be lucky to keep 10."


DoD opens up Defense networks to Android devices

It's been a long road, but it appears the Defense Department has finally begun to crack the code on getting commercial mobile devices into the hands of military users.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, which is in charge of managing the technical details of whether a given piece of IT is sufficiently trustworthy to connect to DoD networks, just released a security technical implementation guide (STIG) that lets a hardened version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 into the defense enterprise — one that's been dominated by BlackBerry since the dawn of handheld computing.

The announcement is significant not just because it involves something that's not a BlackBerry, but because it shows DoD is actually making progress on its ambition to transform its security approval processes so that it's keeping pace with modern technology. The first time the department signed off on an Android device, the process took so long that no one could actually buy one, because the device was no longer being manufactured.

This time around, it's one of the hottest devices in the commercial marketplace, and the STIG covers Android 4.4, the most up-to-date release of the mobile operating system.

That said, it's still DoD, so we're a long way from a "bring your own device" model. The Galaxy S4s DoD allows on its network will be government furnished and will have to run a specialized version of Android called Knox, which forces all government data and communications into a specialized "container" on the device so that it's isolated from security threats.

Knox was created by Samsung, and the company did a lot of the technical legwork to lock down the device before submitting it to DISA, based, in part, on the agency's new strategy of letting vendors know what its security requirements are ahead of time via publicly-available security requirements guides.

John Hickey, DISA's mobility program manager, thinks it's a good sign that DISA is on its way toward its goal of approving new mobile devices within a 30-day cycle.

"The beauty of this is that the security container is built by the manufacturer of the device, so you get a large company sustaining that," he said. "I think it's a big win not just for DoD, but for the federal government."


VA imposes accountability by firing official who was supposed to retire several weeks ago

On Thursday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on new revelations about veterans' deaths in Phoenix and other locations around the country. Beside him at the witness table was Dr. Robert Petzel, VA's undersecretary for health affairs. Both promised to get to the bottom of the matter and impose accountability.

A day later, as my colleague Michael O'Connell reported, Shinseki imposed a degree of accountability by dismissing Petzel, one of three officials (including Shinseki himself) that the American Legion wants fired in the aftermath of the Phoenix revelations.

But it's worth noting that VA has been searching for Petzel's replacement since September of last year, when he first announced that he planned to retire by May 1, 2014.

The question of whether Petzel's firing is truly a punitive measure was raised immediately by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

"Characterizing this as a 'resignation' just doesn't pass the smell test," Miller said. "Desperate to get ahead of a delay in care crisis that is growing by the day, yet apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable for negligence that harms veterans, VA has resorted to what it does best: splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress."

In a statement, Shinseki seemed to acknowledge complaints the country's largest veterans service organizations made during their testimony at the same hearing.

"As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care," he said. "I am committed to strengthening veterans' trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system."

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