Draft Defense Bill Delegates DISA, Back Office Cuts to Management Chief

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Armed Services Committee

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Armed Services Committee Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The draft National Defense Authorization Act withdraws a requirement to “eliminate” the warfighters’ IT shop but would remove most of its central functions.

Lawmakers still want to see drastic cuts to the Defense Department’s support services agencies—including the Defense Information Systems Agency—but would defer to department management on how it should happen, according to the latest annual defense authorization bill.

The latest iteration of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act pulls back somewhat on plans to eliminate specific Defense Department support agencies but still calls for drastic reductions in support spending over the next few years.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, last month floated legislation that called for a 25 percent reduction of the Defense Department fourth estate—a term used to describe Pentagon support agencies that cover areas like IT, procurement and human resources. The draft called for specific cuts, including eliminating DISA, the Defense Technical Information Center, the Office of Economic Adjustment, the Test Resource Management Center, the Defense Technology Security Administration, the Defense Human Resources Activity and the Washington Headquarters Service.

According to the committee, the fourth estate agencies “account for 20 percent of DOD’s budget, 25 percent of the workforce and have enormous influence on day-to-day operations.”

The chairman’s markup released Monday would only require the closure of the Washington Headquarters Service, leaving the rest up to the department’s new chief management officer.

The latest legislation empowers the chief management officer to make cuts as he sees fit “with respect to civilian resource management, logistics, services contracting and real estate management.”

The CMO would have until Jan. 1, 2021, to reduce the department’s logistics, human resources, contracting and property management spending by 25 percent.

“The [defense] secretary and CMO will be given the responsibility to review the function of each component of the fourth estate to validate its usefulness to servicemembers or propose its elimination,” according to a markup summary provided by Thornberry’s office.

While the markup draft rescinds the requirement to “eliminate” DISA, it still calls for significant, specific cuts to the agency. The legislation would require a plan by March 1, 2020, to move all of DISA’s IT contracting and senior leader communications to other parts of the Defense Department.

The language might be softer but the changes don’t signal a retreat from the core goal of cost-saving and reform, said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of Celero Strategies and former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition reform.

“Congress may be giving DOD some leeway with regard to specifics but they appear dead serious about some significant organizational and related changes,” he told Nextgov.

However, the language change—and leeway—is significant, according to David Mihelcic, federal chief technology and strategy officer at Juniper Networks and former DISA chief technology officer.

“This language will cause the CMO to develop and submit a plan that will consider moving these functions to other department elements, but CMO will have latitude to conduct business case analysis to determine what is the best course—in terms of both overall savings and mission impact—to take,” Mihelcic said. “In the final analysis, it may be more expensive to transition and conduct these missions elsewhere. In fact, it might make sense to consolidate IT activities currently performed elsewhere into DISA.”

And if the IT contracting and communications functions were transferred elsewhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean DISA would be closing shop, he added.

“DISA could still maintain its missions to provide interoperable joint communications—the Defense Information Systems Network, or DISN, that DISA sustains and operates is a global network serving all of the COCOMS, services and agencies—as well as computing hosting DISA provides out of its defense enterprise computing centers,” he said.

Mihelcic also pointed to DISA’s roles in testing interoperability between mission systems and spectrum management and engineering, none of which are called out in the latest NDAA language.

CIO Culling

The markup keeps previous language requiring the department to cull the ranks of its chief information officer corps, bringing the total number of Defense Department CIOs from 60 to five.

“The committee is concerned that this number of senior personnel with this same responsibility injects duplication, redundancy and slows the department's ability to swiftly react to the requirements of the department in terms of information technology and responding to the cyber domain of warfare,” the legislation states. It gives defense leaders until January 2021 to make the reduction.