Navy Lab’s Future Is At Risk, Report Warns

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The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) boasts an amazing record of achievement but its future is in jeopardy, according to a newly disclosed report of the Naval Research Advisory Committee that was suppressed by the Navy.

NRL is widely recognized as a world class research institution that has made transformational discoveries in many scientific fields from space science to marine biology, and it pioneered key technologies such as the Global Positioning System.

But that reputation is based mostly on past work. In 2018, the Secretary of the Navy tasked the Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) to assess the Lab’s future role and effectiveness.

“NRL has a proud history of accomplishment,” the NRAC report concluded. “However, there are clear threats for its future.” A copy of the November 2018 interim report was obtained by Secrecy News after the Navy refused to release it.

One problem is that the physical state of the Naval Research Laboratory is a mess.

“We found that most of the facilities are in incredibly poor condition,” the NRAC report said. “Various NRL facilities and laboratories are experiencing leaks, heating and air conditioning problems, and other infrastructure failures.”

“Poor facilities lead to inefficient research, safety issues, and negative motivation for potential researchers,” NRAC said.

(On this point, at least, the Navy concurs with the advisory panel. “Due to their advanced age and deterioration, funds are planned to restore/modernize various laboratory facilities at the Naval Research Laboratory,” according to the Navy’s budget request for FY 2021.)

More subtly, NRL lacks a clear vision of its own future, NRAC said. “The bedrock of any organization is its strategy as captured in a formal strategic plan.” But NRL does not have a strategic plan for science and technology, the report said. Remarkably, neither does the Navy as a whole. Consequently, the NRL research program, buffeted by current needs and controversies, risks losing sight of more ambitious, long-term scientific goals.

Institutionally, the NRL has been isolated from Navy leadership to the detriment of both, according to the NRAC.

“Senior naval leaders are not connected directly with NRL nor do they participate in any routine meetings to keep them informed of specific areas of scientific import.”

“Senior naval leaders (i.e., SECNAV, CNO, CMC, ASNs, VCNO, 4-star Admirals, major N-codes and HQMC codes) get routine briefings on many key topics. They are vocal that the U.S. is losing ground to potential adversaries in the area of science and technology. They emphasize the criticality of S&T in national defense strategies; but NRL, the Navy’s corporate scientific laboratory, is not present at these briefings.”

If scientific advancement is to have a role in the Navy of the future, Navy leaders as well as junior officers and sailors at sea all need to talk to Navy scientists, the NRAC said.

Finally, NRAC said the NRL will have to find new ways to compete for outstanding scientific talent and to maintain a vibrant research culture and a diverse workforce.

NRAC “encourages the leadership of NRL to deliberately pursue a leadership role in enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion of its technical workforce. Demographic data presented indicate that the distribution of scientists, engineers, and leaders is not diverse and in fact declines with seniority.”

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The Navy had refused to divulge the NRAC report. A request under the Freedom of Information Act was denied on grounds that the report is “pre-decisional.”

“This report is marked ‘do not distribute’, is pre-decisional, and is thus exempt from disclosure,” the Navy said in its September 4, 2019 denial letter.

A copy of the report had to be obtained independently.

Leaks of pre-decisional DoD material are damaging to the nation even when they are unclassified, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper told the House Armed Services Committee last week.

“The illegal leaks are terrible, they’re happening across the government, particularly at the Defense Department,” Secretary Esper said at the July 9 hearing (at 1:03:45). “Whether it’s pre-decisional unclassified items or even classified items it hurts our national security, it jeopardizes our troops and it is just damaging to our government and our relationships with our allies and partners.”

But it is hard to see how disclosure of this pre-decisional NRAC report could possibly fit Secretary Esper’s description. If anything, it is the Navy’s refusal to disclose the report that was more likely to cause damage by making it harder to advance solutions to the problems NRAC identified.

In this case, the Navy did more than simply suppress the NRAC message — it eliminated the messenger.

Shortly after the NRAC drafted its report on the Naval Research Laboratory, Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly moved to terminate the 73 year old Naval Research Advisory Committee. (“Navy Torpedoes Scientific Advisory Group,” Secrecy News, April 5, 2019)

“You are hereby directed to execute all required actions to disestablish the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel and Naval Research Advisory Sub-Committee,” Modly wrote in a 21 February 2019 memo.

Today, as a result, the NRAC is no longer around to assess the results of its recommendations, nor will it be available to offer any further criticism in the future.

Update, 7/14/20: The Naval Research Laboratory replied to our request for comment as follows:

“The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory worked with the Naval Research Advisory Committee during their review of NRL in 2018, and has been working to implement many changes found during the NRAC’s review and since then, including a strategic plan.  Further questions about the NRAC report should be sent to the Navy news desk.”

Pentagon Seeks Authority to Recall More Retirees to Duty

The Department of Defense is asking Congress to expand its authority to recall retired members of the military to active duty in the event of a war or national emergency.

The DoD proposal predates the turmoil that followed the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last week and the activation of National Guard units in numerous states.

Current law (10 USC 688a) permits the military to recall no more than 1,000 retirees in order “to alleviate a high-demand, low-density military capability” or when necessary “to meet wartime or peacetime requirements.” DoD wants to remove that 1,000 person limit.

“This proposal . . . would allow the Secretary of a military department to recall more than 1,000 retirees to active duty during a war or national emergency,” the Pentagon said in its May 4 request, which is one of numerous legislative proposals for the FY 2021 defense authorization act.

“Waiving the 1,000 member limitation on this temporary recall authority and the authority’s expiration date in time of war or of national emergency will increase the Department of Defense’s flexibility and agility in generating forces with the expertise required to respond rapidly and efficiently during such a period.”

“Given the unpredictability of war and national emergencies, such as the COVID 19 pandemic, waiver of the 1,000-member limit will better posture the Department to respond to unpredictable and rapidly evolving situations,” DoD said.

There is no reason to be concerned that such authority would ever be abused, the Pentagon told Congress, because “The Office of the Secretary of Defense will ensure the amount of recalled retirees does not exceed the number warranted by mission requirements.”

Last March, the US Army contacted more than 800,000 retired soldiers to inquire if they would be willing to assist with military’s pandemic response, according to a report in

The Congressional Research Service summarized the constitutional and statutory authorities and limitations governing the military role in disaster relief and law enforcement in The Use of Federal Troops for Disaster Assistance: Legal Issues, November 5, 2012.

Air Force Calls for Expansion of Nevada Test Range

The US Air Force wants to renew and expand the withdrawal of public land for the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), where it conducts flight testing, classified research and development projects, and weapons tests. A Defense Department proposal to Congress would increase the amount of land currently withdrawn from public use by more than 10 percent.

The NTTR is already “the largest contiguous air and ground space available for peacetime military operations in the free world,” according to a 2017 Air Force fact sheet.

But it’s not big enough to meet future requirements, the Pentagon told Congress in an April 17 legislative proposal.

“The land withdrawal that makes up the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) expires in 2021. The NTTR is the Air Force’s most vital test and training asset and must be continued,” the DoD proposal said. But even more is needed, according to DoD: “Maintaining the status quo by simply extending the current withdrawal will not be sufficient to meet 5th generation requirements.”

“This proposal would expand the current withdrawal, enacted in the FY2000 NDAA and set to expire in 2021, and make that withdrawal for a period of 25 years.”

Approximately 300,000 acres of additional land would be withdrawn under the proposal, for a total of around 3.2 million acres that would be reserved “for use by the Secretary of the Air Force for certain military purposes.”

As of now, “The range occupies 2.9 million acres of land, 5,000 square miles of airspace which is restricted from civilian air traffic over-flight and another 7,000 square miles of Military Operating Area, or MOA, which is shared with civilian aircraft,” the 2017 USAF fact sheet said. “The 12,000-square-nautical mile range provides a realistic arena for operational testing and training aircrews to improve combat readiness. A wide variety of live munitions can be employed on targets on the range.”

Pentagon Asks to Keep Future Spending Secret

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The Department of Defense is quietly asking Congress to rescind the requirement to produce an unclassified version of the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) database.

Preparation of the unclassified FYDP, which provides estimates of defense spending for the next five years, has been required by law since 1989 (10 USC 221) and has become an integral part of the defense budget process.

But the Pentagon said that it should no longer have to offer such information in an unclassified format, according to a DoD legislative proposal for the pending FY 2021 national defense authorization act.

“The Department is concerned that attempting publication of unclassified FYDP data might inadvertently reveal sensitive information,” the Pentagon said in its March 6, 2020 proposal.

“With the ready availability of data mining tools and techniques, and the large volume of data on the Department’s operations and resources already available in the public domain, additional unclassified FYDP data, if it were released, potentially allows adversaries to derive sensitive information by compilation about the Department’s weapons development, force structure, and strategic plans.”

Therefore, DoD said, “This proposal would remove the statutory requirement to submit an Unclassified Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) to the Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, the Comptroller General of the United States, and the Congressional Research Service.” It follows that FYDP data would also not be included in the published DoD budget request, as it typically has been in the past.

The DoD proposal would preserve a classified FYDP for Congress but it would repeal the requirement that DoD officials “certify that the data used to construct the FYDP is accurate.” DoD said that “This requirement is unnecessary as information from these systems is already used to provide the President’s Budget.”

The unclassified FYDP helps inform budget analysis

At a time when it is clear to everyone that US national security spending is poorly aligned with actual threats to the nation, the DoD proposal would make it even harder for Congress and the public to refocus and reconstruct the defense budget.

Without an unclassified FYDP, Congress and the public would be deprived of unclassified analyses like “Long-Term Implications of the 2020 Future Years Defense Program” produced last year by the Congressional Budget Office. Other public reporting by GAOCRS, the news media and independent analysts concerning the FYDP and future defense spending would also be undermined.

Some information in the FYDP — such as projected intelligence spending — has always been deemed sensitive enough that it can be classified.

But most information in the FYDP is unclassified and is properly the subject of public oversight. So, for example, the recent FY2021 defense budget request for military construction includes an “FY21 FYDP Project List” identifying numerous proposed construction projects across the country and around the world that are anticipated through 2025.

DoD no longer publishes its legislative proposals

Until two years ago, DoD published its legislative proposals to Congress on the website of the DoD General Counsel. (The proposals for FY 2019 are still online.) But that is no longer the case. As part of a broader retreat from public oversight and accountability, the Pentagon today does not make its legislative proposals easily accessible to the public.

A copy of the current package of DoD legislative proposals through March 6, 2020 was obtained by Secrecy News. A complete tabulation of the dozens of specific proposals is available here. A section-by-section description of all of the proposals is here.

Among the current batch is a proposed exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for certain unclassified documents concerning military tactics, techniques, or procedures.

That very same proposed FOIA exemption has previously been rejected by Congress on at least four prior occasions. So legislative approval of such requests is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

Late last week, the House Armed Services Committee filed a preliminary version of the FY21 defense authorization act (HR 6395) based on the DoD legislative proposals. “When the Committee meets to consider the FY21 NDAA, the content of H.R. 6395 will be struck and replaced with subcommittee and full committee proposals,” according to a March 27 news release.

Update 1: On March 31, DoD posted its legislative proposals for the FY 21 defense authorization act.

Update 2: A DoD spokesman said the Pentagon’s proposal was not intended to limit public access to all future year spending data. “There will be no reduction in any currently provided information,” the spokesman said. See Pentagon denies it seeks to hide future budget information by Aaron Mehta, Defense News, April 3, 2020.

Pentagon Must Produce Plan for Declassification

The Department of Defense must explain by early next year how it is going to meet its obligations to declassify a growing backlog of classified records, Congress said this week.

A provision (sect. 1759) in the new House-Senate conference version of the FY2020 national defense authorization act requires the Pentagon to prepare a report including:

*     a plan to achieve legally mandated historical declassification requirements and reduce backlogs;

*     a plan to incorporate new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that would increase productivity and reduce the cost of implementing such a plan;

*     a detailed assessment of the declassified documents released in the past three years along with an estimate of how many will be released in the next three years;

*     other policy and resource options for reducing backlogs of classified documents awaiting declassification.

While the new legislative language is a welcome acknowledgment of a persistent problem, it does not by itself significantly advance a solution. In particular, the legislation does not authorize any new funds for declassification or for development of new declassification technologies, which are not yet mature. Nor does it define an alternative in the event that DoD proves unable to meet its declassification obligations.

In a prior draft adopted by the House of Representatives, the CIA and the State Department would also have been required to prepare similar reports. But those requirements were dropped in the final bill.

“The U.S. government’s system for declassifying and processing historical records has reached a state of crisis,” wrote William Burr of the National Security Archive lately. See “Trapped in the Archives,” Foreign Affairs, November 29, 2019.

JASON Science Advisory Panel Preserved

Congress has directed the Department of Defense to reach an “arrangement with the JASON scientific advisory group to conduct national security studies and analyses.”

Last spring DoD officials sought to let the existing contract with the JASONs lapse, leaving the panel without a sponsor and threatening its continued viability. The new legislation rejects that move, although it anticipates that the JASON contract will now be managed instead by the DoD Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment instead of by Defense Research and Engineering.

“The conferees expect the [new] arrangement or contract to be structured . . . similar to previous contracts for JASON research studies,” the NDAA conference report said.

The JASON panel is widely esteemed as a source of independent scientific expertise that is relatively free of institutional bias. Its reports are often able to provide insight into challenging technological problems of various kinds.

The FY2020 defense authorization bill calls for new JASON assessments of electronic warfare programs, and of options for replacement of the W78 warhead.

In 2019 the JASONs performed studies on Pit Aging (NNSA), Bio Threats (DOE), and Fundamental Research Security (NSF), among others.

DoD To Report on Nuclear Programs of US, Russia, China

In a challenge to Pentagon secrecy, Congress has told the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to prepare an unclassified report on the nuclear weapons programs of the United States, Russia and China.

The requirement was included in the new House-Senate conference version of the FY2020 defense authorization act (sect. 1676).

The mandated report must include an assessment of “the current and planned nuclear systems” of the three nations, including “research and development timelines, deployment timelines, and force size.”

The Pentagon has been reluctant to issue its own unclassified estimates of foreign nuclear programs. Earlier this year DoD even refused to declassify the current size of the US nuclear stockpile, though it had previously done so every year since 2010.

The newly required report must be produced in unclassified form, Congress directed, though it may include a classified annex.

“Across the Department of Defense, basic information is becoming harder to find,” wrote Jason Paladino of the Project on Government Oversight in “The Pentagon’s War on Transparency,” December 5, 2019.

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.