From teleworking in top-secret offices to supply chain disruptions to a freeze on the movement for troops and overseas staff, the coronavirus outbreak has sparked an unprecedented managerial headache for the Pentagon and has left officials grappling with how to keep the military up and running while protecting its workforce amid a global pandemic.
In the Pentagon itself, typically home to about 24,000 employees, officials have dramatically cut the daily physical workforce in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the massive increase in teleworking has sparked its own logistical challenges, including the inability for homebound workers to access classified systems and fresh concerns over cybersecurity.
With thousands of employees no longer inside the building and left without access to critical classified databases, Pentagon leaders have been forced to rework their budget preparations for next fiscal year.
Similar pitfalls have arisen around contract work with the defense industry, portions of which have seen their own operations bog down as employees are kept out of some production facilities and off factory floors. The Defense Department last week announced it would allow contractors who can’t work because of the coronavirus pandemic to continue to be paid — a move that industry leaders say will help keep companies afloat and prevent even greater disruptions.
At the same time, the military has put in place a 60-day “stop movement” order for personnel around the world, preventing the vast majority of military and civilian employees, along with contractors, from traveling.
The widespread upheaval, analysts say, is like nothing the Pentagon has dealt with before. They say the Defense Department can likely keep its footing for several months but the current COVID-19 status quo simply isn’t sustainable for the long term.
“You have to do something because you can’t go on like this for six months or a year,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in both the Defense Department and White House Office of Management and Budget. “The problem for the military is the classification. That is just an insurmountable barrier to the exchange of information and discussion. It has to be badly disrupting to their operations.”
“This is a theme you see across the entire national security community,” Mr. Cancian continued. “How do you balance military readiness and operations against force protection?
[The Defense Department] is trying to maintain some minimal level of operations in the face of a civilian community that is sheltering in place and stopped nearly all operations.”
But some critics say the Pentagon’s own hidebound work culture and its failure to keep up with the times are coming back to haunt its leaders.
“The problem is that DOD has significant cultural barriers to remote work, and as a result has not invested in the technology needed to make it possible,” according to Susanna V. Blume, a onetime top planner at the Pentagon and now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writing earlier month in DefenseOne.com.
She describes the Defense Department as “an old-school workplace,” and not in a good way.
“It is an environment where actual face time (not virtual FaceTime) matters, and people are rewarded for being the first at their desks in the morning and the last out at night, regardless of how productively they are using the intervening hours. If you’re not physically present in the office, the assumption is that you’re not doing work.”
Once past the cultural barriers, Ms. Blume wrote, the Pentagon faces a second challenge: “Updating DOD’s office information technology to the basic level extant in the private sector.”
The dramatic reduction of on-site employees inside the military’s headquarters has been perhaps the single greatest challenge. Thousands of employees typically work with sensitive materials that simply cannot be securely accessed outside of the complex.
That reality is having real-world impacts. Last week, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist tweaked the Pentagon’s budget deadlines in order to allow more employees to work from home, rather than exposing themselves to the coronavirus by coming into the Pentagon.
Mr. Norquist’s new guidance relaxes the requirement for service branches to provide detailed budget requests by June 1 and instead, he said, will result in a more “streamlined” process with some deadlines punted until the fall.
Mr. Norquist said the decision came amid a realization that the only way to meet the original timetable was to have employees still inside the building — who still had access to classified systems — to work even longer hours and not abide by federal social distancing guidelines.
“The question that came up with the coronavirus was, there was a request by some to simply delay — to keep the same amount of work, but just because people were only able to work at a lower efficiency because of the challenges, keep them working, but just have them working longer,” he told reporters at a Pentagon news conference last week. “I found that unacceptable. [Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper] had been very clear that we are not going to keep the same processes and just delay; we’re going to streamline them.”
“So what we’ve done is, we’ve removed steps to lower the level of work that is required so we can stay and do the review, but people don’t need to come in,” he continued. “They don’t need to access the database.”
Budget woes are just one piece of the puzzle for defense officials. The Pentagon also is facing a massive disruption in its partnership with major defense contractors, many of whom have had to cut output and send their own workers home indefinitely. Analysts say that could soon prove particularly problematic, especially if the national economic shutdown continues for months and production lines go offline.
“Even more important is the factory floor, the lab element, they are shutting those down,” Mr. Cancian said. “The defense industry is facing the same tensions the military is facing.”
Despite all of those roadblocks — not to mention the rising COVID-19 case count in the ranks that led to incidents as the sidelining of the USS Roosevelt nuclear aircraft carrier — Pentagon officials stress that the coronavirus hasn’t crippled the U.S. military’s ability to project power and defend the homeland.
“I wouldn’t want any mixed messages going out there to any adversaries that think they can take advantage of an opportunity, if you will, at a time of crisis,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley told reporters last week.
“That would be a terrible and tragic mistake if they thought that. The U.S. military is very, very capable to conduct whatever operations are necessary to defend the American people.”