“Army Futures Command has picked Austin Community College District as the home of its software factory to collaborate with student software developers at a time when the service is hungry to bring software developers to its ranks as it modernizes in a digital age.
The factory will offer training in new technologies like data science and artificial intelligence and curriculum will be developed by the college, the AFC leadership and help from global software development companies.“
“The factory “will be the first of its kind and will provide a training pipeline for soldiers and ACC students,” a Sept. 17 Army press release states. “The factory is designed to help students rapidly scope and solve real-life problems through advanced software development processes.”
Through collaboration between Army soldiers, the students at the college and the greater community, “it’s going to force us to think differently about how we think about the future,” Army Futures Command Commander Gen. Mike Murray said in the statement. “There’s nothing but goodness here in terms of bringing fresh ideas to solve problems.”
The entity is the first soldier-led software factory in the Army and “the vision is to develop a pathway to two- and four-year degrees and connect soldiers and students with industry partners,” the statement reads.
After a nationwide search, the Austin-based college, which is also home to Futures Command headquarters, was chosen based on its reputation for “being a feeder for talent, innovation of its advanced ACCelerator learning lab and launch of its recent bachelor’s degree in software development,” according to the statement.
Software development has become central to the way the Army wants to modernize going forward. It is playing a key role in the development of new weapons systems. Software factories, most notably the Air Force’s Kessel Run program, have become popular in recent years across the department as a way to quickly boost capabilities.
The Army is in the middle of a major campaign of learning called Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, which is seeking to connect assets across the battlefield to fight together to shorten the decision cycle and the kill chain against near-peer adversaries.
Murray told Defense News in a recent interview there are three key technologies today that when paired together in novel ways can provide a strong advantage against possible conflict. Those technologies, which are entirely reliant on software development, are artificial intelligence, autonomy and robotics in the air and on the ground.
“To make those three work in a digital environment, you have to have an underlying robust and resilient network,” Murray said, “and you have to have a data architecture and the data and the talent to put all that together.
A recent ground robotic combat vehicle exercise at Fort Carson, Colorado, is another snapshot highlighting the need to focus on software development.
As the Army ventures into developing robotic vehicles that don’t just do the dull, dirty and dangerous work, “the biggest thing is going to be software development, improving autonomous and automation software,” Lt. Col. Chris Orlowski, the service’s robotic combat vehicles product manager, said at a recent AUVSI unmanned systems defense conference.
“Teleoperation is nice, it works okay if you’ve got the right radios and the right environments, but long term, when those environments become tested, I think teleoperation will be less viable and we will have to really push the automation and autonomy on these platforms,” he said.
The software factory will open in January with 30 soldiers and civilians. More than 15,000 service members expressed an interest in participating within the first week after an internal announcement.”
“With many agency leaders facing a “use-it-or-lose-it” deadline for utilizing their budgets before the end of the fiscal year, the use of OTAs may be a critical and needed weapon for agencies to acquire the resources needed to execute on their fiscal 2020 initiatives.“
“The federal government’s year-end fourth quarter spend has become an annual ritual in Washington, D.C., every September, similar to the anticipation of kids returning to school and the start of fall sports.
It’s more than just the numbers that have revealed this new reality for fourth quarter spending. The entire contracting market has felt it. Government contractors anticipate the release of RFPs over a typical “federal summer” with contract awards to follow in the fall.
In 2018, the year-end spend was referred to as a spending spree of “historic proportions” with nearly 40 percent of contracts being awarded in the last quarter of the government’s fiscal year. Even in a normal year, it was anticipated that 2020 would continue the trend and final quarter spending was predicted to increase. Of course, 2020 has been anything but normal. And it appears this year’s final quarter spend will surpass the previous ones, but with good reason.
The Impact of COVID-19
Suffice to say, 2020 has had a few more challenges than previous years for federal executives. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended all facets of life, business and government. With so much uncertainty throughout the year, many agencies were not able to move forward with some initiatives as quickly as they hoped, thus they did not spend as much as anticipated in the spring and summer months.
Combined with the now-annual Q4 spending frenzy, it means that this year’s fourth quarter will be unlike any before when it comes to government spending. In IT spending alone, Bloomberg Government estimates that nearly $28 billion will be spent by agencies in fourth quarter of fiscal 2020.
An example of the spending push comes from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA has spent only $1.7 billion on IT contracts so far this fiscal year, compared to its $7.8 billion IT budget request, which leaves a massive $6.1 billion that must be spent in the final quarter. Furthermore, the CARES Act appropriated the VA an additional $2.2 billion to modernize its IT and electronic health records systems.
OTAs May Be the Answer
While GSAs push to best in class (BIC) government wide acquisition contracts, has created preferred paths to the market, and the use of those BICs can often lend themselves to short turnaround times to make awards, OTAs seem to be on the rise as another alternative.
Other transaction authority (OTAs) have soared in recent years, as they allow agencies to enter into contracts quicker than some of the traditional procurement methods. These have been most popular within the Department of Defense, as they aim to seek to enlist capabilities faster. Their spending through OTAs has increased from about $1 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $7.8 billion in 2019, according to Bloomberg Government data.
However, the use of OTAs could quickly expand to other agencies in a response to COVID-19 and the need to utilize funding in a timely manner to keep pace with the increased demands that have risen in helping our Country get past this pandemic.
According to federal market analyst Chris Cornillie, this may also become the new normal for procurement moving forward.
“We expect that HHS will continue to use OTAs as it meets the needs of the COVID response, and we may see HHS normalize OTAs as a larger part of their R&D portfolio in future years,” he said.”
“The General Services Administration recently issued an RFI regarding their catalog management processes and product data details. What is driving this market research, and why should OEMs care?
One thing is certain: VPP needs to be done right or it could cause tangible issues for you and your supply chain.
Improving supply chain risk management
The purpose of the VPP is to host authoritative product content such as standardized manufacturer names and part numbers with the aim of improving GSA’s supply chain risk management and modernizing the customer experience. This information ideally would be provided directly by OEMs. In addition to the OEM profile, GSA will allow resellers and distributors to create a profile in the VPP.
The VPP will include information such as product specifications, with the option of adding additional information such as product specs, pictures, and pricing data. The current plan is to allow participating OEMs to authorize and deauthorize products and resellers through the portal in real-time, potentially eliminating the need for resellers to provide letters of supply. (More on this later.)
What does this mean for OEMs and wholesalers? While the VPP will be optional, OEMs should carefully consider whether to participate. If they choose not to maintain a portal entry, OEMs should still pay special attention to product data their authorized resellers and distributors post.
That last part is particularly important. Any data (such as product number, description, pricing, etc.) that is inaccurate or out of date could potentially cause confusion within the OEM’s channel and with GSA. Such confusion, in turn, could delay processing GSA Schedule Contract modifications, as it would leave GSA in the predicament of deciding which data is accurate.
Recognizing this potential for confusion, GSA is proposing a tiered system for non-OEM entities. The idea is that higher-tier portal entities (likely distributors) will take precedence over the lower entities (likely resellers) in the event of a conflict or inconsistent data.
This is precisely why it’s important for OEMs to pay attention to the VPP, and to keep descriptions up to date. Any discrepancy between reseller and OEM information could lead to contract delays and, ultimately, the timing of future federal business.
Advantages for both sides, GSA says
For the GSA, the advantage of VPP would be cohesion of data across the agency and a more secure supply chain. It’s no secret that counterfeit parts have become a growing concern – which is promoting other initiatives such as the DOD’s new Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).
Because buyers want to ensure they are getting authentic parts from a vendor, GSA has long required resellers and distributors to provide a written letter of supply confirming OEM authorization to provide products along with other representations.
For vendors, then, GSA maintains there are benefits as well. First, resellers will no longer have to obtain and provide that letter of supply, which reduces the administrative burden on the organization. Second, the VPP will also ensure that an OEM’s product is represented accurately.
So, what do you do if you are an OEM and decide to participate in the VPP? At a minimum, you’ll need to keep product data up to date, in real time, both on the portal and with resellers and distributors. Failure to do so could easily lead to confusion and delay when trying to update the GSA catalog.
For now, GSA is trying to take baby steps, which is why participation is voluntary, although the agency would prefer to have OEM participation. But the program is not just going to disappear and will likely become even more important as supply chain security continues to be a top government priority.
Regardless of how your organization does business with the government, pay attention to the VPP – because your buyers certainly will be.”
“In putting together the 2020 Washington Technology Top 100, we scoured websites and LinkedIn to gather the names and titles of the senior leadership at the biggest companies in the market.
This year we identified about 680 people who hold a senior position at a Top 100 company. This includes 98 CEOs. [We came up empty for two companies who do not disclose their leadership on their websites – Mythics, No. 51, and New Tech Solutions, No. 85.]”
“It is something we do each year and is one of the great values of the Top 100.
But given the heightened awareness around racial issues and the continuing challenge of women gaining senior leadership positions, I looked at this information in a different way this year. And while I can’t report any kind of upward or downward trend, I do think we can establish a baseline for the number of women and minorities in senior leadership positions at government contracting firms.
Of the 98 CEOs, 84 are male and 14 are female, so 14.3 percent of CEOs are women. Of the 678 total executives (including CEOs), 525 are male and 153 are female. By percentage, 22.6 percent of the senior leaders at Top 100 companies are female.
For the CEOs, I was able to go back to 2015 and compare the numbers and the split remains the same – 84 male CEOs and 14 female CEOs. [We couldn’t identify CEOs for two companies in 2015 as well.]
It’s interesting to note that some companies have swap out leaders. In 2015, Lockheed Martin and IBM Corp, both had female CEOs, but today they do not. Hewlett-Packard had a female CEO but they no longer are in the Top 100 thanks to splits and divestitures. SAIC and Northrop Grumman did not have female CEOs in 2015, but today they do.
When we looked at minorities, particularly African American CEOs, only three companies on the Top 100 have a CEO or chairman who is African American. They are all founders of their companies – Rene LaVigne, who led the spin-out of Apptis Technology Solutions to create Iron Bow Technologies (No. 60), Dave Steward, founder and chairman of World Wide Technologies (No. 50); and Charles Adams, founder and CEO of Adams Communications & Engineering (No. 97).
Counting these three CEOs, there are just 38 senior executives at Top 100 companies that are African America. Another 41 executives fall into other minority groups such as Asian and Hispanic. I did not separate out African Americans and other minority executives by sex.
The raw numbers for minority representation are bleak but the percentages make it look even worse. African Americans comprise just over half a percent of all senior executives we identified – 0.56 percent. The representation of other minorities is just as bad at 0.6 percent.
And combining all minorities together doesn’t improve things. We identified a total of 79 executives who are either African American or a member of another minority group. That’s just 1.16 percent of all 678 executives.
As I said, I don’t have enough past data to make any kind of statement on the trends. My gut tells me that women are doing better. It seems more women are finding leadership roles in mission areas and are leading business units that directly interact with customers.
Of the Top 100 companies, only 25 did not list a female in a senior executive role. That includes the two companies that listed no executives. Not great, and I would still argue that women are underrepresented as CEOs.
While there seem to some positive signs for women executives, when I look at African American and minority executives, the numbers are pathetic. There are 48 companies on the Top 100 where we could not identify a single minority senior executive. Not one.
As I said, I don’t have the data to identify any kind of trend, but even if the number of African American and minority executives is growing, it isn’t growing very quickly. But honestly, I don’t think it’s growing.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I talked with a lot of executives who are sincerely pushing for more inclusion and diversity at their companies and the lack of a presence of African American and minority executives is something several acknowledged.
I believe them and these numbers are another indication of how much work there is to do.”
“Now in its third year, the once dreaded department-wide financial audit is now firmly part of the Pentagon’s culture, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist said Sept. 10.
“Perhaps no change highlights the difference in attitude more than the audit,” he said at the Defense News Conference.
For more than 20 years under multiple administrations, the Pentagon declined to carry out a full-scope financial statement audit, he noted. The attitude was, “Why should we conduct an audit until we are certain we can pass?” he said.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he added. “No one wants to get audited, but if you want to improve, the most important step you can take is to start the audit.”
Auditors, for example, have identified unused or mislabeled inventory that could be put back in the system to save money. In two cases, the department saved $81 million and $53 million at two different bases by labeling items correctly. Additionally, Defense Logistics Agency supply discrepancy reports have resulted in $287 million in back orders being filled, he said.
“I recognize that this is not as dramatic as directed energy or hypersonics, but sometimes changing the management culture is one of the hardest and equally important changes the department has to make,” Norquist said.
Savings were a result of auditors filling out reports called “Notice of Findings and Recommendations” that identify areas of corrective actions and are used to track progress. Last year, the department closed out about 615 of the recommendations, which was about 25 percent of the total filed, Norquist said. He expects about 20 percent to be closed by the end of this fiscal year despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis.
More accurate data is also a cost saver, and manually inputting data is inefficient, the department has learned, he noted.
“When data passes automatically between systems — and the quality control is up front — the accuracy goes up and the costs go down,” Norquist said. For example, the Navy saved $65 million by creating an automated feed to the Defense Finance and Counting Service, he said.
The audit has also uncovered “dormant accounts” where there had been little activity to identify potential areas of savings that could be reinvested in other programs. The result has been $2.6 billion in readjusted funds, he added.
The audit will ultimately bring more accurate data to the department, resulting in the ability to carry out the same kind of data analytics now common in the private sector, Norquist said.”
“Following in the footsteps of other military agencies and offices, Air Force Global Strike Command is reaching out to nontraditional industry partners with the launch of a new innovation hub.
The command — which is tasked with operating the Air Force’s bomber fleet, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear command, control and communications systems — set up a new facility called STRIKEWERX…”
“Said Donna Senft, the command’s chief scientist. “We call it our storefront,” she said in an interview. “It is a facility that enables anyone to come in who wants to work with us and they can bring us their good ideas.”
While the focus of STRIKEWERX is on expanding the command’s innovation base, the door is also open to traditional defense contractors and large businesses, she noted.
“Sometimes within the large businesses we have people who are investing in new ideas through internal research and development and they’re eager to talk to us,” she said. “Any of those types of people, we’re happy to talk to them and connect and hear more.”
The STRIKEWERX facility is located outside of Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, where Global Strike Command is headquartered. The hub was strategically placed off-base to avoid difficulties for those looking to meet with the command, Senft said.
“It can be a little bit hard sometimes for some of our partners to get through the gate,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t know anybody in particular within the command to work with, and so now we have a facility that’s located off-base where they can just walk in the door and talk to our people there and say, ‘I have a great idea. I think you would be interested in it.’”
The effort is modeled after AFWERX, an Air Force initiative that was set up in 2017 to boost the service’s engagement with industry, academia and nontraditional partners while developing much-needed capabilities more quickly and flexibly. AFWERX now has locations in Austin, Texas, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.
Global Strike Command hopes its new hub will aid in facilitating a cooperative “ecosystem” where its particular needs can be addressed.
“In the old days, the Department of Defense drove a lot of new innovations. They had enough funding to go out and invest in and invent the things that we needed, and some of those spinoffs ended up out in the private sector today,” Senft said. However, now there is more investment in the private sector than there is by the Pentagon, she noted.
The command is looking to harvest the “great technologies out there and bring them inside Global Strike Command to solve our needs,” she said.
The STRIKEWERX facility was slated to open in April. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the command to push its grand opening to May. The organization has since hosted multiple “open houses” where small groups of interested parties registered ahead of time to attend both in person and virtually, Senft said.
“These days it can be a little bit more difficult to travel to the Shreveport–Bossier City, Louisiana, area and walk in the door. But we have a virtual presence online,” Senft said.
“We all along had the idea that … STRIKEWERX would have a virtual presence.”
Moving forward, the hub will be home to events, workshops, meetings and industry challenges to find technology to fill the command’s operational gaps. One area STRIKEWERX is already working to address is electromagnetic pulse hardening, Senft said. An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is an intense burst of energy that can be released by a nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, or by a geomagnetic disturbance caused by natural phenomena such as solar flares.
In 2019, President Donald Trump released the “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses,” which called for the nation to reduce its vulnerability to such attacks.
“The federal government must foster sustainable, efficient and cost-effective approaches to improving the nation’s resilience to the effects of EMPs,” the order said.
Global Strike Command is facing the same EMP issues and vulnerabilities as the rest of the nation, Senft said. “We’re interested in good ideas across the country that could help us more cheaply and more effectively harden some of our equipment.”
STRIKEWERX will soon open its doors to industry for a challenge to get after EMP hardening. Invited members of industry will be able to bring their designs, “so it’s more of a problem-solving interaction,” she said.
Innovators that don’t receive an invitation to participate in the challenge won’t be shut out of the facility.
“For companies that haven’t been invited and they have great ideas, they can go to our website and interact with us or walk in the front door,” Senft said.
Another topic of interest for STRIKEWERX is chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense, or CBRN.
The innovation center will host a CBRN virtual event in September in partnership with SOFWERX, an initiative founded in 2016 to facilitate cooperation with industry partners and Special Operations Command. The event will include a technology assessment to identify capabilities that could aid in the development of a next-generation CBRN mask.
Focus areas for the effort include reducing user burden, interoperability and an enhanced face seal.
During the event, individuals will be allotted one-on-one virtual sessions with SOCOM to pitch or demonstrate their solutions.
Other partners for the event include the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Chemical Biological Center, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Meanwhile, the hub has helped Global Strike Command discover a number of local businesses in the surrounding area that may be able to address its problem sets.
“People don’t think of Shreveport, Louisiana, as a hotbed of technology activities normally,” Senft noted. “But we’re finding out there are some great companies that we want to work with that we didn’t know about before. So it has already paid off.”
In the future, the hub will have a topics list to compare proposals presented by companies and members of industry to the command’s needs for compatibility purposes. At this point, the command does not plan to release its future needs list to the public, Senft said.
The STRIKEWERK facility will also be a place for airmen’s “ideas to become reality,” according to the command. It will give servicemembers access to experts, acquisition coaching, and engineering and technical support.
Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said smaller scale Pentagon efforts to reach out to industry, such as STRIKEWERX, have shown to be effective.
“What we’ve seen today have been pretty discreet efforts to tackle clear problems … that really lend themselves to being solved with innovative software,” he said. “These organizations have proven a lot of utility in doing that and in doing it with a mixture of military folks with real coding skills themselves working on the problem, but also getting innovative solutions from industry and being able to combine those two capabilities.”
There have been signs of success, said Hunter who previously led the Pentagon’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell.
“Initially what we heard is: ‘We just don’t know how to get access. We don’t know how to find out what the military needs. We can’t get through the contracting process,’” he said. That now seems to be changing in a positive way with the creation of organizations such as AFWERX, the Defense Innovation Unit and others.
The Defense Innovation Unit, also known as DIU, set up its headquarters in Silicon Valley in 2015 to try to help bridge the divide between the military and commercial tech hubs. It has since opened additional offices in Austin and Boston.
Through such initiatives, companies have been able to gain insights about the military’s requirements, how their products could be applicable, receive initial contracts and begin working with the Defense Department, Hunter said.
“There’s a lot of success in the fact that some of those problems that industry has long complained about — I wouldn’t say they’ve been totally solved forever — but a lot of progress has been made in solving them,” he said.
What many companies now struggle with is crossing over the Pentagon’s dreaded “Valley of Death” from the initial exploratory prototyping phase of a program to implementing their solutions and products on a larger scale across the military, he noted.
“It’s still proving challenging to get the follow-on contracts to those initial contracts,” he said.
One key piece of the equation for initiatives like STRIKEWERX to see positive results boils down to the hub’s business models for industry, Hunter said.
“One of my things that I’ve been focused on a lot lately is thinking about the business model for some of these innovative, especially software-oriented solutions, which is: How does the contractor profit in the near term and the long term?” he said. “Where does that profit incentive come to constantly innovate? Which is what we’re kind of asking industry to do.”
“We are spending … $10 billion a year-plus every year on ship maintenance. I think there are tons of ideas out there in small business that [would] allow us to do that more cheaply, more effectively with less manpower if we had programs to go after and look at it.”
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist, the Navy is making sure that small businesses are not left behind, according to officials.
For example, the service is taking steps to cut down on program acquisition timelines for small businesses. Awarding contracts early has been one its strategies to account for potential complications that may arise during the pandemic. In many cases, the Navy’s overall time to release contract awards was reduced from 120 days to 24 days, Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Lorin Selby said Sept. 1 during the Department of the Navy Gold Coast Small Business Procurement Event. The webinar was hosted by the San Diego Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association.
To reduce acquisition cycles, the Navy has taken steps such as changing project proposal requirements to be less stringent by reducing page count requirements and speeding up evaluation times, Selby noted. The service has also “opened aperture” by accepting more project proposals than usual, he said.
“We put in place a lot of changes,” Selby said. “We sped up our processes. Our proposals, we made them broader. … By the end of June, we were about $80 million ahead of where we would have been last year. We’re pushing money out the door.”
However, small businesses must ensure that they continue to provide adequate work during all phases of an acquisition cycle, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James “Hondo” Geurts said during the event. The Navy, for its part, must be “reasonable at all steps” and avoid putting workers at risk during the pandemic, he noted.
“You’ve got to perform” on programs, Geurts told members of industry. Some companies seem to take the approach that they can complete the first couple of phases of work and then “get rich on phase 3,” he said. “Then it gets priced to the point where it’s not competitive or fair and reasonable.”
Meanwhile, the Navy is hoping to leverage more innovation from small businesses to help it solve some of its existing problems. For example, they may be able to provide ideas on how the service can reduce the amount of money it is spends on ship maintenance, he said. The Office of Naval Research is examining the possibility of setting up a fund dedicated to adopting existing technology that could help cut down on these costs, he noted.”
“The Defense Information Systems Agency awarded its first other transaction authority production contract for $199 million to By Light Professional IT Services to support its cloud-based internet isolation (CBII) pilot program, the agency announced August 19.
DISA previously indicated it wanted to scale the program from the initial 100,000 users to 3.5 million as the Defense Department has embraced telework on unprecedented levels this year to cope with COVID-19 pandemic..
DISA is moving its users first before other DOD organizations, Sherri Sokol, CBII’s program manager told reporters Sept. 3.
Steve Wallace, systems innovation scientist for DISA’s Emerging Technology Directorate, said the agency will look at bandwidth savings and the number of cybersecurity vulnerabilities avoided to measure the program’s success.
Wallace said the tool allows DISA to actively see how much bandwidth a user is taking up and allows for a “much deeper view into the user’s interactions with websites and the internet,” including domains or sites that were good once initially clicked but developed vulnerabilities from third-parties working in the background of a site.
“If that site goes from good to bad, we will have already isolated that user’s interactions with the site,” Wallace said.
CBII also helps manage content downloads, with an eye to reducing network congestion as well as providing safe surfing. “When a user clicks on a pdf or an office document or something like that, the CBII renders that document remotely and then if the user chooses to, then they can download it to their machine,” Wallace said, adding that such downloads to the endpoint device dropped 70% with the tool.
In addition to new tracking capabilities, DISA is pleased with its first foray into OTAs with a program that required swift changes during a global emergency.
Sokol said being able to prototype with different organizations in DOD helped shape requirements and would be something, combined with the OTA use, DISA wants to keep using in the future.
“Some of our requirements changed because of the stress that was being put on the network and we were able to work through that with the vendors to meet our needs based on what was going on with the pandemic,” said Vanessa McCollum, DISA’s chief contracting officer for emerging technologies in the Defense Information Technology Center.”
That’s really not a surprise. The surprise is how much more they cost than we’ve been told.
It might help to think of the nation’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq like a pair of icebergs. The Pentagon has a web page that tells us how much we’ve each paid for the wars. But that only tells us how much of those icebergs we can see above the waves. While it includes totals for war fighting, it doesn’t track the Pentagon’s bigger war budget, interest paid on money we’ve borrowed to fight the wars, veterans’ care, and other ancillary costs. There’s a whole lot more hidden beneath the waves. The real issue isn’t whether the cost of war is high; the issue is why the U.S. government keeps under-estimating it, and why U.S. citizens and taxpayers keep tolerating it.
The cost versus benefit of the nation’s post-9/11 wars was highlighted December 9 when the Washington Post began publishing a blockbuster series detailing how poorly the war in Afghanistan is going. The series is based on more than 400 internal government interviews that the Post largely pried from the congressionally created and independent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction under the Freedom of Information Act. The stories show how U.S. government officials have misled the American public over the past 18 years by publicly declaring how well the war was going while privately acknowledging the opposite.
It echoes much of the analysis on Afghanistan we’ve done regularly here at the Military Industrial Circus (May 2017’s “What kind of military willingly walks onto a perpetual treadmill when the chance of prevailing is next to nil?”) about the rampant truth-fudging (August 2017’s “One can only take the constant spinning for so long before becoming dizzy and cynical over can-do officers who can’t-do.”), the hiding of key indicators about the war’s progress from the American people who are paying and dying for it (November 2017’s “When things are going well, there’s no shutting up the Pentagon.”), and the blindness of our national leaders through three administrations (last March’s “American hubris is always amazing to see, especially in hindsight.”).
For those too young to remember, the nation’s seemingly never-ending post-9/11 wars began as an invasion of Afghanistan. It was designed to crush its Taliban-run government for offering sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks. But it quickly morphed into a “Global War on Terrorism” that has involved U.S. military action in about 80 nations. In 2003, the U.S. also invaded Iraq, arguing—wrongly as it turned out—that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction and played a role in the 9/11 attacks.
The global war on terrorism has killed 7,028 Pentagon personnel, both military and civilian, since 9/11 (at least 7,800 others, employed by private U.S. contractors, have also died in Afghanistan and Iraq.) But its mission creep has also created a non-nuclear chain reaction: The U.S. repeatedly decided it needed more troops, which has led to more veterans. Many of those heroes thankfully have survived wounds that would have killed them in prior wars. But that will boost the cost of their care for decades to come. The Department of Homeland Security, which the government cobbled together from existing agencies in 2003, was padded out with its own bureaucracy. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development got their own off-budget accounts too. And the federal government began borrowing money to pay for all this.
You might think, as a taxpayer, that you could just wander over to defense.gov and look up the cost of those two wars. After all, they’ve been the Pentagon’s focus, fiscally and otherwise, for nearly 20 years. But you’d be wrong. The Pentagon, whether reporting on wars or weapons, is remarkably opaque when it comes to spelling out how much they cost. So outsiders have had to step in to make cents of how much our recent wars have cost.
Even more amazingly after nearly 20 years of war, keeping track of how much the U.S. is spending on the wars may be getting tougher. “In some instances, DOD, State Department and Department of Homeland Security Budgets are opaque,” notes a recent report by the Costs Of War Project, which consists of a team of about 50 experts. “Indeed, because of recent changes in budgetary labels and accounting at DOD, DHS, and the State Department, understanding the costs of the post-9/11 wars is potentially even more difficult than in the past.”
Those interested in minimizing war’s costs will limit their ledger to what the Pentagon actually is spending on combat. A more complete accounting will add in additional military spending routinely ladled into Pentagon coffers during wartime. A still-fuller accounting will add veterans’ care, homeland security, and interest on the money we’ve borrowed to fight the war.
There’s a lot of wishful thinking involved when the U.S. is thinking of going to war. If the government were simply sloppy and slipshod, its estimates would be both low and high. But invariably, they are low, which suggests there’s a motive to the math: Low-balling the cost of war makes it more likely war will happen.
The bureaucratic imperative of how the Pentagon buys its wars and weapons is the “buy-in,” a rosy projection designed to show that the conflict or hardware is a relative bargain. Yet once the war or hardware has achieved escape velocity, its price begins escalating.
The Pentagon argues the nation’s investment in any particular piece of shiny new weapon has grown so massive that abandoning the effort would send those sunk costs spinning down the drain. Likewise, war costs soar because of mission creep—rebuilding Afghanistan instead of simply ousting the Taliban following the attacks of September 11, 2001, for example—and concern that pulling out before achieving victory would mean the lives of those Americans already killed in the effort would have been wasted.
Of course, no one can predict the final cost of a war before it has begun. Yet before it begins the government tends to speak of a war’s monthly cost. In Iraq, for example, that led to an early claim that the war would cost $2 billion a month, totaling perhaps $50 billion. Those relatively low numbers, in Pentagon terms anyway, grease the skids to war.
But watch how they grow.
The litany of minimized post-9/11 war-cost estimates is long. It got off to an ignoble start when one White House official suggested the Iraq war might cost more than his finger-crossing political masters wanted to admit. In September 2002, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey played the skunk at the Garden of Eden party (Iraq has several sites vying to be the biblical paradise) when he suggestedthe Iraq war’s cost to the U.S. could range between $100 billion and $200 billion. He tried to gussy up his then-exorbitant estimate: “The successful prosecution of the war,” he argued in the Wall Street Journal, “would be good for the economy.”
Nonetheless, Lindsey was unceremoniously combat-booted from the White House three months later. Mitch Daniels, the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget at the time, said the war’s cost couldn’t be estimated. But he declaredLindsey’s estimate was “likely very, very high.”
By January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld uncharacteristically deferred to Daniels’ bean counters when it came to projecting the war’s cost. “Well, the Office of Management and Budget has come up with a number that’s something under $50 billion for the cost,” saidRumsfeld, who seemingly rarely embraced others’ views when he believed strongly in his own.
In April 2003, just after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Pentagon saidthe Iraq war would cost about $2 billion a month. But three months later, Rumsfeld raised lawmakers’ eyebrows when he doubledits estimated monthly cost to $3.9 billion (along with nearly $1 billion a month for Afghanistan).
The avarice avalanche had begun.
By July 2006, nearly five years after the 9/11 attacks, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saidCongress “has appropriated about $430 billion to DOD and other government agencies for military and diplomatic efforts in support of GWOT [the Global War on Terrorism].” (You know you’ve reached the Big Time in Washington when your pet project rates its own acronym.) That translated into about $7.4 billion a month.
But the numbers were squishy. “GAO’s prior work found numerous problems with DOD’s processes for recording and reporting GWOT costs, including long-standing deficiencies in DOD’s financial management systems and business processes, the use of estimates instead of actual cost data, and the lack of adequate supporting documentation,” top U.S. Bean Counter David Walker (officially known as the Comptroller General of the United States, the position that runs the GAO), told a congressional panel. “As a result, neither DOD nor the Congress reliably know how much the war is costing.”
“[N]either DOD nor the Congress reliably know how much the war is costing.”
DAVID WALKER, COMPTROLLER GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES
That’s quite a statement coming from the congressional Bookkeeper-in-Chief.
By 2014, the Congressional Research Service said that the U.S. had spent $1.6 trillion “for military operations, base support, weapons maintenance, training of Afghan and Iraq security forces, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care for the war operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks.” That worked out to about $10.3 billion a month.
But even that eye-watering sum misses the mark. The Costs of War Project has spent the past decade pawing through government documents to try to tote up the post-9/11 wars’ total cost. Its latest calculation, released in November, says the U.S. will have spent $5.4 trillion on the global war on terrorism by the end of the current 2020 fiscal year, along with an additional $1 trillion for veterans’ care beyond that. That’s about $20,000 per American.
“There are many hidden or unacknowledged costs of the United States’ decision to respond to the 9/11 attacks with military force,” the group, run out of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, says on its website. “We aim to foster democratic discussion of these wars by providing the fullest possible account of their human, economic, and political costs, and to foster better informed public policies.” The group’s work is largely funded by the Carnegie Corporation, the Colombe Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and Boston and Brown universities.
“We go to war with optimistic assumptions” of duration, cost, and casualties, says Neta Crawford, head of Boston University’s political science department and one of the Costs of War Project’s leaders and author of its latest study. “Most people believe that force is effective, but the history of war is that [winning] doesn’t happen at least half the time,” Crawford told POGO.
And it isn’t just fusty academics who feel that way. “No government-wide reporting consistently accounts for both DOD and non-DOD war costs,” advises an April reportfrom the Congressional Research Service. Not only hasn’t the government been able to win its post-9/11 wars; after nearly two decades it can’t tell us how much it has spent failing to do so.
Put that in your howitzer and light it.
Something to keep in mind the next time the Pentagon predicts a war is going to cost $2 billion a month.”
“The Defense Department released a new directive for its overarching policy guidelines governing its buying practices.
DOD issued Directive 5000.01, the overarching guidance that focuses on the roles and responsibilities for DOD’s acquisition process, DOD announced Sept. 9. The update also includes new tenets implemented by the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, a streamlined set of pathways aimed to help speed up buying and delivering DOD’s needs.
Ellen Lord, DOD’s acquisition chief, has made it a priority to overhaul the defense acquisition practices during her tenure by reforming the DOD 5000 series instructions with a simplified rewrite to improve the process of buying everything from software to services.
“We have a much more flexible way of doing business now codified in policy,” Lord said at the Defense News virtual conference Sept. 9 regarding the move that comes after previous updates in the last year to mid-tier and urgent acquisition policies.
Lord said the changes to 5000.01, paired with the already released 5000.02 instructions that address the use of the Adaptive Acquisition Framework pathways, lay a foundation for more flexible acquisition in DOD and can help get technology fielded to the warfighter faster.
“Now we have software policies where we can move in a much more modern way,” she said.”