Pentagon Risks Falling Short on Electromagnetic Spectrum Goals, GAO Finds


The Defense Department needs to improve governance and oversight of EMS strategies in order to maintain operational control, according to a new audit.

The Defense Department is failing to address challenges related to managing the electromagnetic spectrum—which the agency says is essential for facilitating control in operations—due to lack of adequate governance and oversight, according to a new report. 

The Government Accountability Office released an audit Thursday evaluating how DOD is positioning itself to develop EMS and EMS operations, or EMSO, superiority. According to the audit, not only did DOD neglect to implement prior EMS strategies from 2013 and 2017 aimed at resolving EMS-related challenges, it’s also at risk of missing the mark for its new EMS plan. 

DOD’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy, issued in September, was created in order to ensure warfighters are able to operate freely within the EMS to conduct operations, according to a DOD press release. DOD Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy in the press release blamed the rise of mobile systems and digital technology for placing “enormous strain on the available spectrum for DOD’s command, control, and communication needs.” 

The 2020 strategy consolidates the 2013 and 2017 strategies, which were never fully realized, but the Pentagon still hasn’t taken four outstanding governance and oversight steps. This puts DOD’s long-term EMSO goals at risk, according to GAO. 

“Specifically, the department has not (1) issued processes and procedures to integrate EMSO across the department, (2) proposed and implemented governance reforms, (3) assigned a senior official with appropriate authority to oversee long-term strategy implementation, or (4) articulated oversight activities that would help ensure accountability and strategy implementation,” the audit reads. 

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directed DOD to define EMSO integration processes and procedures, but a DOD official on the EMSO cross functional team who is aware of efforts in this area told auditors fulfilling these requirements would be a “future effort.” The official said DOD plans to include the processes and procedures in the implementation plan for the new strategy.

DOD officials also told auditors governance reforms are the most important outstanding problem with regard to EMS the department needs to address, but as of September, DOD still had not proposed reforms to the defense secretary. A cross functional team official said governance reforms will also be part of the pending implementation strategy, but GAO indicated this may not be enough to fulfill reform requirements.

“Our analysis of the 2020 strategy found that it identifies effective EMS governance as a goal, but a strategic goal is not the same as specific proposals for reform,” the audit reads. 

It’s also not clear what component, exactly, should lead on EMS issues. DOD suggested EMS should fall under the CIO’s portfolio, but at the same time, the CIO office doesn’t have enough staff to govern EMSO for the whole department. On top of that, the EMSO cross functional team isn’t sure the current CIO structure will work for departmentwide governance anyway because the current structure may be limiting the CIO’s influence. 

The Pentagon needs to pick a point person to “compel action and oversee long-term implementation of the 2020 EMS strategy,” too, according to the audit. Based on DOD directives, the 2019 NDAA, the 2020 EMS Strategy and federal law, this senior official for EMS could be the CIO, the EMSO cross functional team’s senior designated official, or some kind of partnership between the two. The senior designated official is currently Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But DOD has not said—conclusively—which route it will take. 

Progress in implementing past EMS strategies has been limited by a lack of oversight. But DOD hasn’t described any additional oversight processes for the 2020 strategy beyond its intention to create an implementation plan, according to the audit. 

While DOD asserted many of the EMS issues identified in the audit would be resolved in the implementation plan for the 2020 strategy, GAO still has its doubts. Past implementation plans didn’t do enough to processes and procedures, GAO found, and they were also tardy. 

“DOD’s experience with the previous EMS strategies demonstrates that the intention of issuing an implementation plan within 180 days does not guarantee the department will do so,” the audit reads. “The previous strategies also called for such plans, and they were not issued in a timely manner.” 

GAO enumerated five recommendations in the audit, of which DOD concurred with two and partially concurred with three. 

DOD said the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has “taken steps” to complete the requisite policies and procedures for an integrated defense-wide strategy, planning and budgeting for EMSO and agreed the vice chairman should propose EMS governance reforms to the defense secretary. 

But on the latter three GAO recommendations, DOD said it won’t take action until organizational reform recommendations are developed and reviewed by the defense secretary.