DOD service chiefs survey the threat landscape

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As the clock counts down on the Obama administration, the secretaries of the military services are reflecting on the challenges that keep them awake at night. The federal budget, acquisition reform, cybersecurity and workforce challenges are at the top of the list.

"I didn't anticipate how much time would be spent on the budget because of the instability each year," Army Secretary Eric Fanning said during an Oct. 24 panel discussion at the Center for a New American Security. "We start every year with a continuing resolution and don't really know what the top line is.… It takes an enormous amount of time of the institutional leadership to constantly be rethinking through the budget based on that instability year after year after year."

That uncertainty is exacerbated by an outdated acquisition system that is geared toward building battleships when today’s threats come in the form of ones and zeros. The situation has led the military services to look for alternative ways to field new systems. The Army, for instance, recently launched a Rapid Capabilities Office based on the Air Force’s approach.

Fanning said the Army's RCO is designed to get tools and systems into the hands of soldiers quickly so they can use, experiment with and refine them in the field rather than waiting for a finished product to emerge from a lengthy procurement.

The existing acquisition and testing processes are "set up for that pristine solution," he said. "The adversary is figuring out how to do things in a very short cycle and get things into the field and experiment with it in real time, and our soldiers can do that as well. We just need to get that capability into their hands."

Secretary Ray Mabus said the Navy is increasingly focused on pilot programs rather than programs of record for the same reason -- to get technology out of the lab and into the hands of warfighters quickly to respond to emerging threats.

The Navy launched a pilot program four years ago that put a laser weapon on U.S.S. Ponce. The program was supposed to last six months, "but we kept learning so many lessons, it was so valuable [that] we're using it now to develop follow-on weapons," he said, adding that had the Navy gone through the traditional acquisition process, it would be years behind where it is now.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said large and complicated systems like the F-35 fighter jet need significant levels of review, oversight and audit, but smaller programs that are doing well should be more agile.

"Another thing is to maximize the authorities that we already have in law that perhaps we haven't fully maximized yet," she added. In particular, she highlighted "other transaction authority," an existing mechanism designed to short-circuit the acquisition process.

"We've set up a couple of new contract vehicles to try to get some innovative companies to do business with us on some key problems, particularly in the area of cyber," James said.

Along with cyber, space and electronic systems are growing threats for the Air Force, she added. The Islamic State group is using commercial drones rigged with explosives to attack U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, but James said U.S. forces were recently able to bring down a drone through electronic measures rather than shooting it.

Those evolving electronic threats raise concerns about the state of Air Force readiness, she added. The service is ready to take on any traditional mission, but "what if you get into a different type of a fight, a fight where you don't necessarily control the skies and where the enemy on the ground or elsewhere can interfere with you in a major way in space or cyber?" James asked.

"That is where we have concerns about our readiness that we don't have enough of our force fully ready… to take on that level of fight," she added. "We may lose more lives, more people may be hurt or killed, we may lose more assets, more aircraft and the like. So that's the impact of not having sufficiently high levels of readiness for what I call the high-end, complex fight."

The military leaders said readiness goes beyond resources and training to encompass the way officials think about recruitment and retention.

"I think everybody agrees that we can't build and retain a cyber force like we have done traditionally with other aspects of the force," Fanning said. Instead, the military services need to experiment with how to attract people because it can’t compete with the private sector in terms of money.

"You can't win on salary," Mabus said, "but what you can win on is that people are making a difference here inside the military, people are making a difference in terms of the future of this country." He added that the military needs to make service -- civilian or military -- more flexible and give people more responsibility and reasons to join and stay in the service.

"Cyber is one of those areas that we've got to have the expertise, we've got to have enough of that broad thinking and different sorts of thinking," Mabus said. "A military force that is predictable is a force that is defeatable, and we've got to bring in people who think differently -- from different backgrounds, from different experiences -- and not just become a monolithic culture in either civilian or the uniformed services."

James said one way to do that is to make better use of the National Guard and Reserves. "If you can attract some of these top-notch cyber professionals who are in the private sector to also serve part-time in a reserve unit, the individual can have it both ways," she added. "They can keep their civilian job, but they also have this opportunity to participate in a fantastic [and] very, very important mission."

"The problems we’re facing are as complex as they’ve ever been…so we need all hands on deck," Fanning said.

James said building the future workforce will be a primary challenge for the next set of secretaries, and recruiting and retaining workers will not be easy as the economy grows. "We all foresee much more difficulties in this arena," she added. 

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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