Revolutionary Advances in AI Won’t Wait

The Pentagon has turned innovation into a buzzword, and everyone can agree on the need for faster innovation. It seems a new innovation office is created every week. Yet when it comes to AI, the DoD is still moving too slowly and hampered by a slow procurement process. How can it make innovation core to the organization and leverage the latest technological developments?

We have to first understand what type of innovation is needed. As Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen wrote, there are two types of innovation: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining innovation makes existing products and services better. It’s associated with incremental improvements, like adding new features to a smartphone or boosting the performance of the engine on a car, in pursuit of better performance and higher profits.

Disruptive innovation occurs when a firm with fewer resources challenges one of the bigger incumbents, typically either with a lower-cost business model or by targeting a new customer segment. Disruptive firms can start with fewer resources because they have less overhead and fewer fixed costs, and they often leverage new technologies.

Initially, a disruptor goes unnoticed by an incumbent, who is focused on capturing more profitable customers through incremental improvements. Over time, though, the disruptor grows enough to capture large market share, threatening to replace the incumbent altogether.

Intel Illustrates Both Types of Innovation

Intel serves as an illustrative example of both types of innovation. It was the first company to manufacture DRAM memory chips, creating a whole new market. However, as it focused on sustaining innovation, it was disrupted by low-cost Japanese firms that were able to offer the same DRAM memory chips at a lower cost. Intel then pivoted to focus on microprocessors, disrupting the personal computer industry. However, more recently, Intel is at risk of being disrupted again, this time by lower-power microprocessors, like ARM, and application-specific processors, like Nvidia GPUs.

The DoD, like the large incumbent it is, has become good at sustaining innovation. Its acquisitions process first outlines the capabilities it needs, then sets budgets, and finally purchases what external partners provide. Each part of this – the culture, the procedures, the roles, the rules – have been optimized over time for sustaining innovation. This lengthy, three-part process has allowed the Pentagon to invest in steadily improving hardware, like submarines and airplanes, and the defense industrial base has followed suit, consolidating to just five major defense contractors that can provide the desired sustaining innovation.

The problem is that we are now in an era of disruptive innovation, and a focus on sustaining innovation doesn’t work for disruptive innovation. As a result of decreasing defense budgets in the 1990s and a parallel increase in funding in the private sector, companies now lead the way on innovation. With emerging technologies like drones, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing advancing every month by the private sector, a years-long process to outline capabilities and define budgets won’t work: by the time the requirements are defined and shared, the technology will have moved on, rendering the old requirements obsolete. To illustrate the speed of change, consider that the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence’s lengthy 2021 report on how the U.S. can win in the AI era failed to include any mention of generative AI or Large-Language Models, which have seen revolutionary advances in just the past few years. Innovation is happening faster than our ability to write reports or define capabilities.

The Small, Daring, and Nimble Prevail

So how does an organization respond to the threat of disruptive innovation? It must create an entirely new business unit to respond, with new people, processes, and culture. The existing organization has been optimized to the current threat in every way, so in many ways it has to start over while still leveraging the resources and knowledge it has accumulated.

Ford learned this lesson the hard way. After trying to intermix production of internal combustion cars and electric vehicles for years, Ford recently carved out the EV group into a separate business unit. The justification? The “two businesses required different skills and mind-sets that would clash and hinder each area if they remained parts of one organization”, reported the New York Times after speaking with Jim Farley, the CEO of Ford.

When the personal computer was first introduced by Apple, IBM took it seriously and recognized the threat to its mainframe business. Due to bureaucratic and internal controls, however, its product development process took four or five years. The industry was moving too quickly for that. To respond, the CEO created a secretive, independent team of just 40 people. The result? The IBM personal computer was ready to ship just one year later.

One of the most famous examples of creating a new business unit comes from the defense space: Skunkworks. Facing the threat of German aircraft in World War II, the Air Force asked Lockheed Martin to design them a plane that could fly at 600-mph, which was 200 mph faster than Lockheed’s current planes. And they wanted a working prototype in just 180 days. With the company already at capacity, a small group of engineers, calling themselves Skunkworks, set up shop in a different building with limited resources – and miraculously hit the goal ahead of schedule. Their speed was attributed to their ability to avoid Lockheed’s bureaucratic processes. Skunkworks would expand over the years and go on to build some of the most famous Air Force planes, including the U-2 and SR-71.

DoD’s Innovation Approach to Date

The DoD appears to be re-learning these lessons today. Its own innovation pipeline is clogged down by bureaucracy and internal controls. Faced with the threat of a Chinese military that is investing heavily into AI and moving towards AI-enabled warfare, the DoD has finally realized that it cannot rely on its sustaining innovation to win. It must reorganize itself to respond to the disruptive threat.

It has created a wave of new pathways to accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies. SBIR open topics, the Defense Innovation Unit, SOFWERX, the Office of Strategic Capital, and the National Security Innovation Capital program are all initiatives created in the spirit of Skunkworks or the “new business unit”. Major commands are doing it too, with the emergence of innovation units like Navy Task Force 59 in CENTCOM.

These initiatives are all attempts to respond to the disruption by opening up alternative pathways to fund and acquire technology. SBIR open topics, for example, have been found to be more effective than traditional approaches because they don’t require the DoD to list requirements up front, instead allowing it to quickly follow along with commercial and academic innovation.

Making the DoD More Agile 

Some of these initiatives will work, others won’t. The advantage of DoD is that it has the resources and institutional heft to create multiple such “new business units” that try a variety of approaches, provided Congress continues to fund them.

From there, it must learn which approaches work best for accelerating the adoption of emerging technologies and pick a winner, scaling that approach to replace its core acquisitions process. These new pathways must be integrated into the main organization, otherwise they risk remaining fringe programs with scoped impact. The best contractors from these new pathways will also have to scale up, disrupting the defense industrial base. It is only with these new operating and business models – along with new funding policies and culture – can the DoD become proficient at acquiring the latest technologies. Scaling up the new business units is the only way to do so.

The path forward is clear. The hard work to reform the acquisitions process must begin by co-opting the strengths of these new innovation pathways. The good news is that the DoD, through its large and varied research programs, partnerships, and funding, has clear visibility into emerging and future technologies. Now it must figure out how to scale the new innovation programs or risk getting disrupted.

DoD Again Presses for New FOIA Exemption

The Department of Defense is once again asking Congress for an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for certain unclassified military information including records on critical infrastructure and military tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs).

The latest proposal was included in the Pentagon’s draft of legislative language for the Fiscal Year 2022 defense authorization act (section 1002, Nondisclosure of certain sensitive military information).

Similar language has been proposed by DoD each year since 2015, and each year (so far) it has been rejected by Congress. (DoD Seeks New FOIA Exemption for Fourth Time,” Secrecy News, May 1, 2018).

The provision is still needed, according to DoD. “The effectiveness of U.S. military operations is dependent upon adversaries, or potential adversaries, not obtaining advance knowledge of sensitive TTPs, rules for the use of force; or rules of engagement that will be employed in such tactical operations,” DoD wrote in its June 7 justification of the proposal.

Furthermore, DoD assured Congress that if it were approved the exemption would not be used indiscriminately. It “will not be applied in an overly broad manner to withhold from public disclosure information related to the handling of disciplinary matters, investigations, acquisitions, intelligence oversight, oversight of contractors, allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, allegations of prisoner and detainee maltreatment, installation management activities, etc.”

Most DoD doctrinal publications are unclassified and are publicly available online. Some are classified. But some are unclassified and restricted. For example, last week the Army issued a publication on Special Forces Air Operations (ATP 3-18.10) that is unclassified but that is only available to government agencies and contractors. The withholding of such documents might be susceptible to a focused challenge under the Freedom of Information Act, and DoD apparently wishes to bolster its legal defense against any such challenge.

The Freedom of Information Act provides both for disclosure and for withholding of various government records, so exemptions are part of the package.

But Congress may again decide to reject DoD’s latest proposal because of the Department’s inconsistent and unreliable implementation of the FOIA.

There are FOIA requests dating back as far as 2005 that are still pending at the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to the latest DoD annual report on FOIA. If an agency is unable to act on a valid FOIA request for a decade or longer, a new exemption would be superfluous.

DoD has also taken a relaxed approach to other statutory requirements.

In December 2019, Congress enacted a provision requiring DoD to produce a plan for addressing the backlog of classified documents awaiting declassification. (“Pentagon Must Produce Plan for Declassification,” Secrecy News, December 11, 2019). This was not optional. But it was not done.

Domestic Use of DoD Drones

The Department of Defense is authorized to use unmanned aircraft systems within U.S. airspace for more than a dozen different types of operations, from search and rescue to counterintelligence.

These domestic missions, and the official guidance or legal authority behind each of them, were tabulated in a newly updated manual on military support to civilian authorities.

See Appendix 1, Table 1 in Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA), ATP 3-28.1, February 11, 2021.

Overall guidance on domestic use of DoD drones was provided in a 2018 memorandum issued by then-Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis that is still in effect.

“The primary purpose, and large majority, of DoD domestic UAS operations is for DoD forces to gain realistic training experience, test equipment and tactics in preparation for potential overseas warfighting missions,” according to a cursory DoD website on the subject.

JASON Science Advisory Panel Endures

Having survived a Pentagon attempt to terminate it, the JASON panel that performs independent technical assessments for government agencies now seems set for a period of relative stability.

Last year Mike Griffin, then-Under Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering), abruptly refused to renew his Office’s sponsorship of the JASONs, and the panel was temporarily taken over by the National Nuclear Security Administration under then-Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty.

In response, Congress directed the Department of Defense to engage the JASONs “on an ongoing basis, on matters involving science, technology, and national security, including methods to defeat existential and technologically-amplified threats to national security.”

Despite that clear directive, DoD requested no funding at all for the JASONs in the current fiscal year. So the House added $3 million to cover overhead costs for the JASONs and the money was in fact authorized in the pending defense authorization act for fiscal year 2021 that is expected to pass this week.

The Department of Defense recently indicated that it would solicit competitive bids for administrative and management support to the JASONs, which is currently provided by the MITRE Corporation. (“Pentagon’s Advisory Group, JASON, Survives Another Competition,” by Robert Levinson, Bloomberg Government, December 1).

The demand for the sort of independent evaluations that the JASONs produce is limited. Unlike many other government advisory panels, the JASONs insist on selecting their own members. That means that their studies cannot be skewed by appointing political allies or persons of dubious qualifications, as the Trump Administration has done lately with the Defense Business Board. Their expertise and independence does not guarantee that they will be right or effective, but the JASONs offer a kind of integrity that is increasingly absent from other such panels.

The majority of JASON products are classified or otherwise restricted from public release. One recent unclassified report that was done by the JASONs for the Census Bureau discussed ways to employ secure computation technologies to increase the usage and the utility of datasets held by the Bureau. See Secure Computation for Business Data, November 23, 2020.

Another recent report offered suggestions to the National Science Foundation on how to mitigate the effects of large constellations of orbiting satellites on ground-based astronomical observations. See Impacts of Large Satellite Constellations on Optical Astronomy, September 10, 2020.

These and other JASON reports are moderately dense and technical and may not attract a large audience. But interested readers will often find them stimulating and informative.

DoD Legislative Proposals to be Published

After failing to publicly disclose its proposed legislative agenda, the Department of Defense will soon be required to do so.

Each year DoD generates proposals for legislative actions that it would like to see incorporated in the coming year’s national defense authorization act. These may include tweaks to existing statutes, requests for relief from reporting requirements, or something more ambitious.

It used to be the case — until two years ago — that those legislative proposals were routinely posted on the website of the DoD Office of Legislative Counsel where they could be publicly examined and evaluated. Then, without explanation, DoD stopped posting them.

Last spring, one of DoD’s more far-reaching but publicly undisclosed proposals sought to rescind a requirement to produce an unclassified version of the Future Years Defense Program budget document. (Secrecy News, 03/30/20),

That proposal was not adopted in the House-Senate conference version of the FY2021 defense authorization act (HR 6395).

But Congress did adopt a provision (sec. 1059) crafted by Reps. Katie Porter and Jackie Speier that will now require DoD to publish its legislative proposals online within 21 days of their transmission to Congress.

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Last month, the Departments of Energy and Defense denied a request from the Federation of American Scientists to disclose the current size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the number of warheads that have been dismantled. Such information had previously been declassified and published by the executive branch each year through 2017. But for now it remains classified. See “Trump Administration Again Refuses To Disclose Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Size” by Hans Kristensen, FAS Strategic Security, December 3.

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

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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.

Update (October 2021): The required report on Reducing the Backlog in Legally Required Historical Declassification Obligations of the Department of Defense was released in October 2021.

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.