Managing the Department of Defense: An Overview

More than 2.8 million U.S. military and civilian defense personnel were deployed in more than 150 countries around the world last year.

No one person can fully comprehend the workings of the Department of Defense. It is a massively complicated bureaucratic construct composed not only of the military services (Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps), but also of numerous defense agencies, “DoD field activities,” and unified combatant commands, among other components.

An internal Pentagon publication entitled “Organization and Management of the Department of Defense,” presented an overview of this mammoth enterprise as of March 2019.

The 168 page document provides detailed information on the Department’s structure and governance, along with various other significant data that can be hard to locate.

So one finds, for example, that there were a total of 1,310,731 active U.S. military personnel at the end of 2018, including no fewer than 229,611 officers.

There were 2,882,061 U.S. military and civilian defense personnel deployed in 158 countries, which are broken down in the document by the number of personnel and their location abroad — except for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where deployment figures are currently restricted.

The Pentagon document has already been overtaken by events in some respects. Instead of the 19 defense agencies it lists, there are now 20 — including the new Space Development Agency. And instead of 10 unified combatant commands, there are now 11 — including the new U.S. Space Command.

Additional material about DoD organization and management can be found in the new DoD financial audit for FY 2019, published last week.

Defense Primers for Members of Congress

The Congressional Research Service developed “a series of short primers to provide Members of Congress an overview of key aspects of the Department of Defense and how Congress exercises authority over it.” The defense primers, several of which have been recently updated, can be found here.

Other noteworthy recent CRS publications include the following.

Overseas Contingency Operations Funding: Background and Status, updated September 6, 2019

Congress and the War in Yemen: Oversight and Legislation 2015-2019, updated September 6, 2019

Afghanistan: Issues for Congress and Legislation 2017-2019, updated September 3, 2019

DHS Border Barrier Funding, updated September 6, 2019

Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, updated September 6, 2019

Extreme Weather Threatens Military Facilities

Extreme weather events and rising sea levels are causing damage to U.S. military facilities and could threaten U.S. military infrastructure around the world.

“Is the military ready for climate change?,” asked Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). “It is not.”

“In the last 12 months, severe storms have devastated Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Offutt Air Force Base,” he said during the House debate on the FY2020 defense authorization bill on July 10.

The defense bill that was passed by the House therefore included several provisions to require the Department of Defense “to plan for and respond to the threat that climate change poses to military installations and military operations.”

Similar requirements to incorporate weather projections in defense facility planning were included in the Senate version of the pending defense authorization bill.

On a political plane, there are still ideologically-driven disparities in perception of the threat of climate change. But those disparate perceptions may soon be overtaken by the reality of climate-induced damage, including damage to defense infrastructure.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) manages more than 1,700 military installations in worldwide coastal areas that may be affected by sea-level rise,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a new brief. See Military Installations and Sea-Level Rise, CRS In Focus, July 26, 2019.

“Hurricane Michael damaged every building on Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base (repair estimate $4.7 billion),” CRS noted. “Hurricane Florence dropped 36 inches of rain, flooding three North Carolina Marine Corps installations (repair estimate $3.6 billion).”

Failure to act will incur increased costs, the Government Accountability Office warned in June.

“Not assessing risks or using climate projections in installation planning may expose DOD facilities to greater-than-anticipated damage or degradation as a result of extreme weather or climate-related effects,” GAO said. See Climate Resilience: DOD Needs to Assess Risk and Provide Guidance on Use of Climate Projections in Installation Master Plans and Facilities Designs, GAO-19-453, June 12, 2019.

“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” the Pentagon acknowledged in a January 2019 report to Congress (with a March supplement).

“Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life,” warned outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in January.

“Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond,” he told Congress.

Pentagon Pivots to More “Public Engagement”

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who took office last week, has directed senior military and civilian defense officials to “more actively engage with the public,” according to a Pentagon memo issued on Friday.

“Simply put, the Department benefits when we thoughtfully engage with the American public, Congressional leaders, international community, and the media,” wrote Jonathan Rath Hoffman, the Assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs.

But increased public and media engagement does not necessarily mean increased disclosure or improved access to information.

“Always seek the appropriate balance between transparency and operational security,” the July 26 memo stated. “As senior leaders you are closer to pertinent issues. Therefore, you are often best suited to make determinations on what should or should not be released within classification guidelines and have the responsibility to protect even unclassified non-public information.”

Still, the new memo represents a change in attitude from that expressed by the previous Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis.

In an uncompromising October 2017 memo that was understood by Pentagon officials to discourage discretionary disclosures, SecDef Mattis wrote:

“We must be vigilant in executing our responsibility to prevent disclosure of any information not authorized for release outside of the Department of Defense: All hands must be alert to prevent unauthorized disclosure of non-public information for any reason, whether by implied acknowledgement or intentional release. Misconduct cannot be tolerated and suspected or confirmed disclosure must be reported at once.”

Following that direction from Secretary Mattis, many types of previously available defense-related information were in fact withdrawn from public and media access, such as the number of US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and the current size of the US nuclear arsenal.

Therefore, if Secretary Esper wanted to increase public disclosure of defense information, it wouldn’t be hard to do.

Earlier this month, DoD produced its updated report on the post-9/11 cost of warthrough March 31, 2019.

“Since September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) has obligated $1,548.5 billion for war-related costs,” the report said, using DoD’s somewhat arbitrary metrics for cost reporting.

The unclassified cost report was provided to Congress, but it was not publicly released by DoD.

PCLOB Releases Its Oversight Agenda

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is conducting oversight in nearly a dozen areas broadly related to intelligence and counterterrorism. The PCLOB oversight agenda was detailed in a statement this week.

“This document describes the Board’s active oversight projects and other engagements. . . .The shorthand descriptions below are intended to provide public transparency, consistent with the protection of classified information and other applicable law,” the July 1 statement said.

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Meanwhile, the Department of Defense issued a new directive outlining how it will obtain and make use of public information. See DoD Access to and Use of Publicly Available Information (PAI), DoD Directive 3115.18, June 11, 2019.

The directive said that DoD will collect public information in an open and transparent way — except when it is authorized to employ deception.

As a general matter, “DoD personnel will not use false assertions of identity or organizational affiliation for official purposes to access, acquire, or use PAI without complying with cover policies . .  and other DoD guidance and issuances on the use of cover,” the directive said.

“Cover” is defined as “The concealment of true identity or organizational affiliation with assertions of false information as part of, or in support of, official duties to carry out authorized activities or lawful operations.”

DoD Doctrine on Nuclear Operations Published, Taken Offline

The Joint Chiefs of Staff briefly published and then removed from public access a new edition of their official doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. But a public copy was preserved. See Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations, June 11, 2019.

The document presents an unclassified, mostly familiar overview of nuclear strategy, force structure, planning, targeting, command and control, and operations.

“Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” according to one Strangelovian passage in the publication. “Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The document might have gone unremarked, but after publishing it last week the Joint Chiefs deleted it from their public website. A notice there states that it (JP 3-72) is now only “available through JEL+” (the Joint Electronic Library), which is a restricted access site. A local copy remains publicly available on the FAS website.

DoD Says It Still Needs Open Burn Pits

The use of open pit burning for disposal of hazardous waste, medical waste, tires or plastic can present a threat to human health and safety, as well as causing other environmental damage. So as a rule, the practice is “strictly prohibited” by Department of Defense regulations.

But there are exceptions to the rule. And DoD continues to rely on open pit burning for waste disposal in some of its contingency operations abroad, according to a new DoD report to Congress.

Specifically, DoD identified a total of nine locations where open pit burning of waste continued this year: seven in Syria, one in Afghanistan, and one in Egypt. See Department of Defense Open Burn Pit Report to Congress, April 2019.

By way of justification, the DoD report said that “In countries such as Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan it is common practice to burn waste in open pits.”

And while alternative approaches would be welcome, the Pentagon has other fish to fry. “The Department’s strategic investments are focused on providing a more lethal force, vice investment in costly support systems.”

“No technology or equipment solution has been devised that could eliminate all waste burning requirements for every contingency location,” the report to Congress said.

The new DoD report was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. A provision of the pending FY2020 defense appropriations bill would require DoD in the future to “post on a public website any report required to be submitted to Congress with certain exceptions.”

Defense Contracting Fraud: A Persistent Problem

During the five year period from 2013-2017, there were 1,059 criminal cases of defense contracting fraud resulting in the conviction of 1,087 defendants, including 409 businesses, according to a newly released Department of Defense report to Congress. There were another 443 fraud-related civil cases resulting in judgments against 546 defendants.

During that same period, the Department of Defense entered into more than 15 million contracts with contractors who had been indicted, fined, and/or convicted of fraud, or who reached settlement agreements. The value of those contracts exceeded $334 billion, according to the DoD report. See Report on Defense Contracting Fraud, DoD report to Congress, December 2018.

The report was prepared in response to a requirement in the FY2018 defense authorization act at the initiative of Sen. Bernie Sanders. It was released this week under the Freedom of Information Act.

A previous report covering the period of 2001-2010 was produced by the Department of Defense in 2011, also at the request of Senator Sanders. The earlier report likewise found extensive fraud including criminal and civil offensive in defense contracting.

“Simply put, the Pentagon continues to be riddled with waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer funds to a degree unmatched across the federal government,” Sen. Sanders said in 2017. “It is unacceptable that the Department of Defense continues to lose vast sums of taxpayer money because of fraud perpetrated by major defense contractors. This has got to end.”

The 2011 report listed dozens of defense contracting firms that had been convicted of criminal fraud, and hundreds more that had been subject to civil judgments.

The latest report names nine firms that were debarred or suspended but otherwise does not identify the criminal or civil defendants from the 2013-2017 period covered by the report. But much of this information can be gleaned from the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (FCMD) maintained by the Project on Government Oversight.

Several recent instances of defense contractor fraud are described in the latest Semi-Annual Report from the Department of Defense Inspector General.

“Procurement fraud includes, but is not limited to, cost and labor mischarging, defective pricing, price fixing, bid rigging, and defective and counterfeit parts,” the DoD IG report said. “The potential damage from procurement fraud extends well beyond financial losses. This crime poses a serious threat to the DoD’s ability to achieve its objectives and can undermine the safety and operational readiness of the warfighter.”

Costs of War Add Up

“Since September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) has obligated $1,534.8 billion for war-related costs,” according to a new Pentagon quarterly report.  See Cost of War Through December 31, 2018, FY 2019, 1st quarter.

The DoD report summarizes and categorizes spending patterns over the past two decades by operation (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan), by year, by DoD component, and by amount appropriated. The report has been transmitted to the General Accounting Office, but it is otherwise not publicly distributed by the Department of Defense.

The validity of the DoD cost accounting in these periodic reports is questionable, and not only because they exclude the significant costs of health care for wounded personnel, reconstruction, and other war-related costs.

Several past DoD cost of war reports had “systemic problems,” were “inaccurate” and “unreliable,” the Department of Defense Inspector General found earlier this year. See Summary Audit of Systemic Weaknesses in the Cost of War Reports, DODIG-2019-066, March 22, 2019.

“Over the past three years, obligations for war spending have averaged $47 billion per year, mostly to fund the operating support costs of U.S. forces in and around Afghanistan,” according to a recent overview from the Congressional Research Service. See U.S. War Costs, Casualties, and Personnel Levels Since 9/11, CRS In Focus, April 18, 2019.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military last week issued updated doctrine on peace operations, which encompasses five distinct activities: conflict prevention, peacemaking processes, peace enforcement operations (PEO), peacekeeping operations (PKO), and peace building. See Peace Ops: Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Peace Operations, ATP 3-07.31, May 2, 2019.

Congress Members Speak Up for JASONs

The Department of Defense decision not to renew the underlying contract for the independent JASON scientific advisory panel drew criticism from a bipartisan, bicameral group of congressmen and senators.

“We believe that cancelling the JASON contract could damage our national security by depriving not only the Pentagon, but also other national security agencies, of sober and sound advice in confronting some of the Nation’s most complex threats,” the members wrote on May 3.

They noted that the National Nuclear Security Administration had recently intervened to sustain the JASONs for the coming year.

“However,” they wrote, “given the national security interests involved in cancellation of the JASON contract, a permanent solution must be found. We encourage you to work with NNSA and the other agencies that utilize JASON to find an appropriate long-term home for JASON, whether it be Research and Engineering, another office, such as Acquisition and Sustainment, or NNSA.”

If the JASONs’ current sponsor at Defense Research and Engineering is indifferent to or uninterested in the work of JASON, it would be pointless to compel continued sponsorship of the group there. But other agencies such as NNSA have an interest in preserving JASON, as does Congress itself.

“Members of Congress have long counted on their nonpartisan, independent, science-based advice to inform our decisions on a range of national security issues facing our nation, such as nuclear weapons, space, and emerging technologies,” the members wrote. They posed a series of questions about the Pentagon’s handling of the JASON contract and they asked the Acting Secretary of Defense to cooperate in resolving the issue.

Last week a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of a 2016 JASON report entitled “Counterspace” was denied on appeal by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The unclassified JASON report is exempt from FOIA as deliberative material and because it contains arms export control information, DARPA said.