How DOD's executive exodus could affect tech modernization

Back-to-back resignations raise concerns about how things will be run without permanent leadership in key areas from policy to tech development.

DOD photo by Senior Airman Perry Aston  11th Wing Public Affairs

A recent spate of departures from top Defense Department officials has raised questions about excessive White House influence, but the joint resignation by DOD’s top tech officials -- Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and his deputy, Lisa Porter -- also highlights potential long-term consequences for the military's tech capabilities.

Morgan Dwyer, an international security fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told FCW that research and tech development are the crux of the National Defense Strategy, and that losing the department’s top advocates could signal a decline in research funding.

“The National Defense Strategy emphasizes cutting-edge technology. And at least initially, we saw that priority reflected in DOD’s budget requests,” Dwyer said.

DOD has boasted its increased research and development dollars in recent budget cycles, with Griffin and Porter, who are set to resign July 10, steering that change.

Dwyer, who is also the deputy director for policy analysis for CSIS’s Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, said since DOD split the acquisitions, technology, and logistics organization into two entities -- acquisitions and sustainment and research and engineering -- the latter entity’s job has been to advocate for new tech investments.

“In the coming months, DOD will finalize its [fiscal 2022] budget request. However, without Griffin or Porter at the helm, new technology won’t have a strong, Senate-confirmed advocate during this process,” Dwyer said, “And without that type of leadership, I think it is unlikely that the RDT&E budget will enjoy the same priority that it did when [it] was led by Senate-confirmed officials.”

The dual departures also mean that a relatively new organization is left to run somewhat on autopilot.

“Griffin and Porter were also responsible for staffing up a new office, establishing its culture and processes, and figuring out the most effective way to engage with the established Pentagon bureaucracy,” Dwyer said, adding that it’s “unlikely” that work is already completed.

As a result, staff “will be forced to work through organizational growing pains with temporary leadership—which I can only assume will make their jobs harder.”

A DOD spokesperson told FCW that there are “no announcements at this time” on interim replacements for Griffin and Porter.

Interim leaders and short stints in permanent appointments have become the norm for the Trump Administration. But such tumult in national security positions has raised concerns as the Pentagon’s top roles seem prone to a consistent shuffle, particularly in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Stan Soloway, former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition reform, told FCW the timing of the departures definitely raises questions, especially since the president still has a chance at a second term. The challenges are even greater since DOD has been facing significant leadership turnover since 2016.

“The administration has made clear they don’t mind having acting [leaders] in positions; they kind of like it because it gives them more flexibility,” Soloway said. "But it has a real impact on how much you can actually get done."

Soloway, who is now the president and CEO of the government consulting firm Celero Strategies, said it’s normal for people to look for and find jobs if they aren’t likely to be a part of the second-term administration, but the compounding of four years of turnover with inexperienced White House staff “suggests there’s something going on under the surface.”

Dwyer, who used to be an analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation, concurred, pointing out that most of the defense secretary’s chief advisor roles are filled with temporary leadership.

Those offices in OSD, including research and engineering, policy, and acquisition and sustainment, “are the secretary’s primary tool for ensuring that the military services develop and procure technology that aligns with the Secretary’s priorities,” Dwyer said.

“All of those offices -- with the exception of [the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment] -- are led by acting officials, and the current [acquisition chief, Ellen Lord] has delegated much of her authority back to the military services. So at the moment, there’s limited OSD oversight or assurance that what the military services are developing and procuring actually meets joint objectives.”

A sampling of the shuffles

The White House only filled about 71% of DOD’s Senate-confirmed positions, according to a Washington Post analysis, with OSD leadership in flux from the inspector general’s office to the comptroller.

John Rood resigned from his position as undersecretary for defense policy in February; James Anderson is the acting undersecretary. The White House nominated Anthony Tata, a Fox News commentator and chief growth officer for Air Data Solutions, for the confirmed position. The principal deputy undersecretary for policy is also interim, with Daniel Green performing those duties.

Thomas Harker, the assistant Navy secretary for financial management and comptroller, is now the acting comptroller after Elaine McCusker resigned from her acting role June 26 after her nomination was pulled. McCusker was filling in for David Norquist who is now the deputy secretary of defense.

DOD is also missing a confirmed director of cost assessment and program evaluation. John Whitley was nominated for the role that analyzes how DOD’s budgets, plans and strategic objectives match up, highlighting potential threats and estimated costs or resource constraints.

The Pentagon is down a permanent deputy under secretary for intelligence and security. Kathryn Wheelbarger, who acted in the role, resigned in June after her nomination was pulled. The president nominated Bradley Hansell, Boston Consulting Group associate director, for the gig.

The Navy needs a nominee for the undersecretary of the Navy, but Gregory Slavonic is acting in the role. Kenneth Braithwaite, previously the U.S. ambassador to Norway, was confirmed to be the new Navy secretary in May.

Shon Manasco is the acting deputy secretary of the Air Force and has been nominated for the permanent job. Matthew Donovan previously served in the role but transitioned to be the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in March. Donovan’s deputy, William Bushman, is acting in the role.