Does DOD have the leadership it needs on electromagnetic spectrum strategy?

Joseph Kirschbaum, the director of defense capabilities and management, for the Government Accountability Office, told Congress that having leadership buy-in is the difference between a successful strategy and a failed one.

concept image of radio communication (DARPA)

The Defense Department is in danger of falling behind in electronic warfare if it doesn't identify strong leadership to implement its latest electromagnetic spectrum strategy, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Joseph Kirschbaum, GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management, said that DOD didn't fully implement its 2013 and 2017 electromagnetic spectrum strategies due to "bureaucratic and organizational hindrances," particularly when it came to developing "to detailed implementation plans."

Instead, DOD created a new strategy, the latest of which was published in October 2020, Kirschbaum told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies and Information Systems at a March 19 hearing on the topic. That pattern, if repeated, could "threaten potential success for the 2020 strategy," he said.

Bryan Clark, a Hudson Institute senior fellow and director for its Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, called spectrum the "forgotten domain," because "although we experience the EMS every day through our smartphones, mobile computers, or vehicle collision avoidance systems, the spectrum cannot be seen or felt like land and cyberspace."

Clark said the implementation plan should be led by an organization, such as the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, that can manage resources and operational planning to compete with China and Russia. Both those nations have a more "unified governance structure for EMS policy and capability requirements," he said.

"The U.S. military, in contrast, divides responsibilities for doctrine and strategy between U.S. Strategic Command, the EW Executive Committee, and the EMSO Cross-Functional Team," Clark stated in his testimony. "Moreover, DOD does not give any of these bodies the authority to direct EMS-related spending or acquisition, reducing their ability to implement policy."

One of the key issues surrounding DOD's EMS operations and strategy has been governance. Frederick Moorefield, DOD's deputy CIO for Command, Control, & Communications, told FCW that past implementation plans "were soft" and that this time, the goal is to elevate spectrum to the defense secretary level and deliver "specific actions...dates and who's responsible."

Kirschbaum testified that having leadership buy-in is the difference between a successful strategy and a failed one.

"It needs to be someone who has the authority to execute backed up by a process to assess what actions are taken -- and whether those actions match the vision," Kirschbaum said, noting that all DOD's EMS strategies since 2013 addressed relevant battle management operations problems, such as spectrum sharing and system development.

"Those kinds of things are going to be critical to glom onto for the future -- whether it's education, or system development -- in order to get there we have to put the right department emphasis on achieving those things," he said.

William Conley, former director for electronic warfare in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said senior DOD leadership was evidenced by the absence of a former, confirmed or acting deputy defense secretary on Friday's panel.

Going forward, said Conley, who is now the CTO of Mercury Systems, the Pentagon needs to be "making sure at the strategic level the investment that we are making is aligned with where we want the strategy to go and making sure there is that senior leader buy-in from the budgeting side."