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May 2 2015

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Retirement overhaul on fast track

By Leo Shane III, Staff writer 9 a.m. EDT April 27, 2015

\The old, reliable military retirement system is about to be retired.

House and Senate lawmakers are moving ahead with dramatic plans to replace the current 20-year, all-or-nothing deal with a “blended” compensation system, complete with a 401(k)-style investment plan that promises all future troops will leave the service with some money for retirement.

The moves echo recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission earlier this year, which pushed for changes to recognize the estimated 83 percent of service members who leave the military with no retirement benefits.

But some outside advocates still worry that, while well-intentioned, the change could decimate the senior noncommissioned and officer ranks, by giving them too much incentive to start a civilian career earlier and not enough incentive to stay to 20 years.

Lawmakers seem undeterred, at least for now. House Armed Services Committee members are expected in coming days to forward their retirement change proposal to the full House for consideration. Rep, Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, committee chairman, said he believes the move as a whole will strengthen the fighting force.

“This is the sort of change that isn’t going to save a lot of money, but it’s designed to attract and keep up the quality of talent in the military,” he said.

Senate Armed Services Committee leaders said they’ll follow suit early this summer. If those plans ultimately become law, the new retirement system would be in place by October 2017.

The 20-year retirement model has served as a major military recruiting tool for decades, offering service members a sizable pension while still in their prime working years.

But critics have noted that troops fatigued by multiple combat tours, unsettled by frequent military moves or forced out due to force cuts are left with no employer-backed retirement offerings, even though most of their civilian counterparts have one.

The new proposal — included in early drafts of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill — would address that in dramatic fashion.

The commission recommendation and House committee’s plan would offer a 401(k)-style investment account with government contributions that would travel with troops whenever they leave the military.

Plans call for an automatic federal contribution equal to 1 percent of troops’ basic pay into their investment accounts, even if troops contribute nothing.

Service members then could choose to contribute up to 5 percent of their basic pay, and the government would provide matching contributions — offerings that mirror private-sector employee benefits.

The new retirement system also would offer a lump-sum “continuation pay” for service members who stay beyond 12 years of service and the traditional monthly annuity for those who serve for 20 years and beyond.

However, the payouts would be reduced by about 20 percent from current offerings, which has raised concerns among critics.

To counter that, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, said lawmakers will allow government matches to savings plans to continue past 20 years of service, a provision that was not a part of the commission’s original proposal.

Lawmakers also are looking to dump complex lump-sum retirement payout options recommended by the commission in favor of a simpler plan.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he supports the idea of the House plan, but his committee will work out its own details in weeks to come.

Still, McCain said the two committees are working closely on the idea and he expects little conflict on the issue between the chambers.


Lingering concerns

Troops already serving at the time the new plan takes effect would be grandfathered under their traditional military retirement system. They could choose to opt into the new plan, but would not be required to do so, as newly enlisting troops would be.

And Heck said the two-year process for implementation should give Congress and the Pentagon plenty of time to troubleshoot unexpected issues and calm fears about the potential effects of the new plan.

So far, it hasn’t. Officials from Military Officers Association of America and the American Legion — two of the biggest critics in the debate so far — said they worry the process is still moving too fast, and that more study is needed to determine what effect the 401(k)-style offering will have on retention of older troops.

“Although we support providing a transportable career device for those who leave the service prior to attaining 20 years of service, MOAA has serious concerns that the commission’s blended retirement benefit will fail to provide the necessary draw to retain service members to 20 years of service,” the group said in a statement.

Heck disagreed with those concerns, as did a number of other outside advocates.

Officials from the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States applauded the move, saying it will improve the financial future of the vast majority of service members. Veterans of Foreign Wars officials echoed that sentiment.

“There is much to like about the new retirement plan because it gives people options,” said Joe Davis, VFW spokesman. “It allows them to receive a government match throughout their career where currently there is none. It grandfathers everyone in uniform under the old system, but with an opportunity to opt into the new.”


Work ahead

The House and Senate plans also will feature new financial literacy training for troops, so they better understand how the investment savings accounts will work and the risks involved.

Commission members had called that education component critical to the success of any retirement changes, since most troops now don’t have enough familiarity with similar civilian retirement plans.

Lawmakers will mandate that Pentagon officials offer a path within six months to implement the new retirement plan, and launch the new system at the start of fiscal 2018.

White House officials are not expected to weigh in on the commission’s retirement proposals until April 30.

But Defense Secretary Ash Carter already has talked in broad terms about the need to offer more civilian-type benefits to military enlistees, including 401(k)-style investments.

The plan still must navigate the months-long congressional authorization process before it heads to President Obama’s desk for his final signature. But Heck said he is confident his colleagues will back the idea, in the interest of fairness.

“For too long, if you didn’t serve 20 you left with nothing,” Heck said. “This plan recognizes the service of everyone.”




Russian Hackers Read Obama’s Unclassified Emails, Officials Say




WASHINGTON — Some of President Obama’s email correspondence was swept up by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system that was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.

The hackers, who also got deeply into the State Department’s unclassified system, do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Mr. Obama’s BlackBerry, which he or an aide carries constantly.

But they obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr. Obama regularly communicated. From those accounts, they reached emails that the president had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation.

White House officials said that no classified networks had been compromised, and that the hackers had collected no classified information. Many senior officials have two computers in their offices, one operating on a highly secure classified network and another connected to the outside world for unclassified communications.


But officials have conceded that the unclassified system routinely contains much information that is considered highly sensitive: schedules, email exchanges with ambassadors and diplomats, discussions of pending personnel moves and legislation, and, inevitably, some debate about policy.

Officials did not disclose the number of Mr. Obama’s emails that were harvested by hackers, nor the sensitivity of their content. The president’s email account itself does not appear to have been hacked. Aides say that most of Mr. Obama’s classified briefings — such as the morning Presidential Daily Brief — are delivered orally or on paper (sometimes supplemented by an iPad system connected to classified networks) and that they are usually confined to the Oval Office or the Situation Room.

Still, the fact that Mr. Obama’s communications were among those hit by the hackers — who are presumed to be linked to the Russian government, if not working for it — has been one of the most closely held findings of the inquiry. Senior White House officials have known for months about the depth of the intrusion.

“This has been one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen,” said one senior American official briefed on the investigation.

Others confirmed that the White House intrusion was viewed as so serious that officials met on a nearly daily basis for several weeks after it was discovered. “It’s the Russian angle to this that’s particularly worrisome,” another senior official said.

While Chinese hacking groups are known for sweeping up vast amounts of commercial and design information, the best Russian hackers tend to hide their tracks better and focus on specific, often political targets. And the hacking happened at a moment of renewed tension with Russia — over its annexation of Crimea, the presence of its forces in Ukraine and its renewed military patrols in Europe, reminiscent of the Cold War.

Inside the White House, the intrusion has raised a new debate about whether it is possible to protect a president’s electronic presence, especially when it reaches out from behind the presumably secure firewalls of the executive branch.

Mr. Obama is no stranger to computer-network attacks: His 2008 campaign was hit by Chinese hackers. Nonetheless, he has long been a frequent user of email, and publicly fought the Secret Service in 2009 to retain his BlackBerry, a topic he has joked about in public. He was issued a special smartphone, and the list of those he can exchange emails with is highly restricted.

When asked about the investigation’s findings, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said, “We’ll decline to comment.” The White House has also declined to provide any explanations about how the breach was handled, though the State Department has been more candid about what kind of systems were hit and what it has done since to improve security. A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment.

Officials who discussed the investigation spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the hacking. While the White House has refused to identify the nationality of the hackers, others familiar with the investigation said that in both the White House and State Department cases, all signs pointed to Russians.

On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter revealed for the first time that Russian hackers had attacked the Pentagon’s unclassified systems, but said they had been identified and “kicked off.” Defense Department officials declined to say if the signatures of the attacks on the Pentagon appeared related to the White House and State Department attacks.

The discovery of the hacking in October led to a partial shutdown of the White House email system. The hackers appear to have been evicted from the White House systems by the end of October. But they continued to plague the State Department, whose system is much more far-flung. The disruptions were so severe that during the Iranian nuclear negotiations in Vienna in November, officials needed to distribute personal email accounts, to one another and to some reporters, to maintain contact.

Earlier this month, officials at the White House said that the hacking had not damaged its systems and that, while elements had been shut down to mitigate the effects of the attack, everything had been restored.

One of the curiosities of the White House and State Department attacks is that the administration, which recently has been looking to name and punish state and nonstate hackers in an effort to deter attacks, has refused to reveal its conclusions about who was responsible for this complex and artful intrusion into the government. That is in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s decision, after considerable internal debate in December, to name North Korea for ordering the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, and to the director of national intelligence’s decision to name Iranian hackers as the source of a destructive attack on the Sands Casino.

This month, after CNN reported that hackers had gained access to sensitive areas of the White House computer network, including sections that contained the president’s schedule, the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the administration had not publicly named who was behind the hack because federal investigators had concluded that “it’s not in our best interests.”

By contrast, in the North Korea case, he said, investigators concluded that “we’re more likely to be successful in terms of holding them accountable by naming them publicly.”

But the breach of the president’s emails appeared to be a major factor in the government secrecy. “All of this is very tightly held,” one senior American official said, adding that the content of what had been breached was being kept secret to avoid tipping off the Russians about what had been learned from the investigation.

Mr. Obama’s friends and associates say that he is a committed user of his BlackBerry, but that he is careful when emailing outside the White House system.

“The frequency has dropped off in the last six months or so,” one of his close associates said, though this person added that he did not know if the drop was related to the hacking.

Mr. Obama is known to send emails to aides late at night from his residence, providing them with his feedback on speeches or, at times, entirely new drafts. Others say he has emailed on topics as diverse as his golf game and the struggle with Congress over the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

George W. Bush gave up emailing for the course of his presidency and did not carry a smartphone. But after Mr. Bush left office, his sister’s email account was hacked, and several photos — including some of his paintings — were made public.

The White House is bombarded with cyberattacks daily, not only from Russia and China. Most are easily deflected.

The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies put their most classified material into a system called Jwics, for Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. That is where top-secret and “secret compartmentalized information” traverses within the government, to officials cleared for it — and it includes imagery, data and graphics. There is no evidence, senior officials said, that this hacking pierced it.



Amid Funding Cuts, Will LSU Have to Declare ‘Bankruptcy’?


By Martha C. White

For LSU, a good offense has always proved to be the best defense. But now the school that hosts the nationally ranked Tigers is facing a foe that makes the Crimson Tide seem weak: budget cuts.

Louisiana’s public colleges are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as they face a drop in state funding of up to 82 percent. As the state legislature fails to make headway covering a $608 million shortfall in higher education spending, its public colleges are bracing for the prospect of budget cuts so deep some institutions — including the state’s biggest public flagship — might have to declare financial exigency. That’s college funding-speak for something akin to bankruptcy.

The potential threat to Louisiana’s public colleges is unprecedented, said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the National American Association of University Professors.

“I don’t know if anything that drastic has occurred anywhere in modern times or perhaps ever,” he said. “It’s hard to know what cuts of that magnitude will amount to.”

“I don’t know if anything that drastic has occurred anywhere in modern times or perhaps ever.”

Under financial exigency, a bankruptcy-like status that gives institutions a legal pathway to change contracts or other financial obligations, schools would have more freedom to lay off tenured professors or eliminate programs and departments.

“We need to have every tool at our disposal to survive,” said F. King Alexander, president and chancellor of the Louisiana State University system, who added that the school still hoped to avoid exigency. “We’re optimistic that we can get through this but as managers of the institution, we’ve got to play out every scenario,” he said.


Worst-case scenario

But without a rescue from lawmakers, Alexander said programs could be dropped or entire departments shuttered under a worst-case scenario. “Specifically, we don’t know which programs or departments we’re talking about [but] it would require us to utilize every tool possible,” he said.

Even if the worst-case scenario doesn’t come to pass, it’s possible students could find themselves paying more, through increases in tuition and fees or decreases in the state’s TOPS scholarship program. Lawmakers have historically been reluctant to raise tuition — currently $8,758 for tuition and fees for in-state students at LSU — but there is discussion about giving schools themselves more freedom to do so.

Administrators say students have already been asked to shoulder a growing amount of the cost and can’t take on any more.

“We’ve gone from being very state funded-intensive to being tuition-dependent, and we’ve got 40 percent of our students that are Pell [grant] eligible,” said Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana system, which consists of nine universities throughout the state. Since 2009, tuition and fees have climbed by 61 percent while state funding has dropped by 55 percent, a drop of $90 million.

“We’ve already shifted to mostly being funded by tuition revenue in a state that has a relatively low income population,” Woodley said. Further cuts would just hurt the most vulnerable.

“We need the legislature to find general fund dollars to fill the gap,” she said. “We’re no longer able to shift the burden to the students.”

Alexander said other options LSU is discussing with its student government include implementing or increasing fees on services ranging from tutoring to mental-health counseling. Facilities like computer labs or the school health center could have their hours of operations pared back.


Enrollment declines

Whatever the outcome, the legislative gridlock is hurting the state’s public higher education infrastructure, Woodley said. “We’re already starting to see enrollment declines all across our system,” she said. “I think a good part of that is due to the affordability issues.”

The fiscal uncertainty also could affect schools’ borrowing ability. Earlier this month, Moody’s Investors Service lowered LSU’s outlook, citing “limited prospects for sustained revenue growth due to potential reductions in state operating funding,” among other factors.

“More people [who] have the means to do so will leave Louisiana for college and get their college educations elsewhere,” Kurland said. He added that the threat of exigency would make it harder for state schools to attract good tenure-track professors.

This could hurt Louisiana’s ability to compete for businesses and jobs, Kurland said. “[If] the skilled workforce is not being developed… it’ll discourage industry from investing money because the prospects will look so bleak,” he said. Rather than pour money into training workers, companies seeking to start up or grow will look elsewhere.

Woodley said the UL system was already trying to double the number of STEM majors it graduates to keep up with demand and make the state more competitive, but those efforts risk being derailed for a lack of funds.

“The momentum we had in higher education in conjunction with development… is the biggest thing that’s in jeopardy,” she said.



Psychological study finds that typing is destroying your memory

This article was posted on 04/14/2015


By Max Teodorescu


Over the years, I’ve had an inkling that my ability to spell has been on a steady decline, heading straight for the gutter. At times I feel utterly powerless without spellcheck, especially when typing. Under normal circumstances, one may assume that the issue stems from the lack of practice, yet I’m reading and writing on a much more frequent basis than at any point in my life; after all, my livelihood depends on it. Secondly, I’m too young to be developing early stage Alzheimer’s. That leaves one other culprit: the keyboard. A recent study published in Psychology Science discovered that hand-writing notes results in a far superior mode of memory recollection than typing. Interestingly, this is something I’ve long suspected.

Like me, Princeton University psychological scientist Pam Mueller observed that her ability to recollect content was far superior when jotting down information by longhand than with a keyboard. Deciding to put the theory in practice, she developed a series of three experiments to test the note-taking technique’s effect on memory.

In the first study, Mueller had two groups of students observe a TED talk video while taking notes either by longhand or with a laptop. Afterwards, when both were presented with the same exam, those who previously used the pen scored significantly higher on the conceptualization section of the exam than the laptop group; both performed equally on the fact recollection section.

The reason for such a disparity on the conceptualization segment is the laptop users were essentially transcribing the lecture, whereas the pen users had to selectively decide what to note. “Because we write by hand less quickly, those who took notes with pen and paper had to be more selective, choosing the most important information to include in their notes. This enabled them to study the content more efficiently.”

In the second experiment, Mueller explicitly asked the laptop students to avoid verbatim note-taking, but surprisingly, the students were unable to follow instructions. Instinctively, they reverted to transcription. “It’s an ingrained technique,” she explained.

To minimize the difference between the two groups in the third experiment, Mueller allowed the students one week’s time to study their notes before testing them on the same material. She expected the laptop note-taking group’s score would rebound, catching up to their longhand counterparts; but that did not occur. “We were surprised that the longhand students still did better,” Mueller explains, “even though laptop note-takers had more content written down, they hadn’t processed it in the same way initially.”

The question that inevitably arises is: which method is better? It depends on circumstance.

If you’re in a situation where forming a deeper understanding of the material is crucial, such as at a lecture or seminar, than longhand note-taking triggers greater mental processing because you have to decide what’s content is most important. This also applies to creating to-do lists as you may be able to better prioritize task versus just listing everything that comes to mind, explains Mueller.

By contrast, situations that require verbatim notes, such as recording detailed instructions or interviewing a source, than transcribing the conversation will be much faster with the aid of an electronic device.

While transitioning back to pen and paper is extremely unlikely, the stylus and touchscreen may serve as a flexible middle ground that can switch between both modes of expression depending on the circumstances.


Ash Carter’s Idea of Disruptive Innovation: Unplug the Military From GPS


By Sandra I. Erwin

April 27, 2015

One of the Pentagon’s best-known inventions, the GPS satellite, could be replaced in the foreseeable future by technology that is far cheaper and more resistant to jamming. Finding an alternative to GPS not only could save the Pentagon billions of dollars but also would make the military less vulnerable to signal disruptions, said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.


The Defense Department is responsible for maintaining a constellation of at least 24 operational GPS satellites that transmit radio signals to users. The U.S. Air Force now operates 31 spacecraft.


Carter has been a long-time critic of GPS. During last week’s visit to Silicon Valley, he appealed to tech innovators to help the Pentagon wean itself from dependence on these billion-dollar satellites.


“GPS is very expensive to launch and operate,” he said April 24 during a podcast that was hosted by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Besides the cost, GPS “makes us vulnerable to attacks, it is impossible to use in the valleys of Afghanistan or in a big city [where signals are blocked], or in places where the signal is poor,” Carter said. “At DoD we worry about enemies jamming GPS signals.”


He proposes an alternative he calls the “GPS of things.” Rather than relying on satellite signals, every device would be equipped with a micro-electromechanical chip that would include an inertial navigation system, small accelerometers and precision clocks. Today this technology is in smartphones, and it could be developed further, Carter said April 23 in a speech at Stanford University. “We’ll push, for example, the performance envelope in timing and navigation technology by harnessing Nobel Prize-winning physics research that uses lasers to cool atoms.” In the GPS of things, he added, “Objects, including our military systems, keep track of their position, orientation, and time from the moment they are created with no need for updates from satellites.”


This technology will be “inexpensive,” Carter said in the podcast. “And pretty soon I won’t be launching any more of those satellites.”


The Pentagon is determined to lessen its susceptibility to GPS disruption and is prepared to invest in a potential substitute, Carter said. “Because we have the need to not be vulnerable to jamming, we will develop these MEMS [micro-electromechanical] chips even if they’re expensive because we need them so badly,” he said. “We’ll get there first. We’ll be market leaders. Then everyone else will enjoy the benefits.”


Carter’s pitch was partly aimed at venture capitalists in the Valley who may be looking for promising upstarts. The technology to create the GPS of things would not only be a smash hit in the military market but also would have limitless commercial applications, Carter said.


The Pentagon, however, has no immediate plans to shut down GPS, Carter cautioned. “While DoD will of course continue to support the GPS satellites, which we engineer and launch … we also need to find alternatives for military use that are more resilient and less vulnerable.”


Carter’s vision has been endorsed by groups like the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation that has called for a backup system to GPS. “Carter suggests that in 20 years our dependence on satellites will be eliminated by new chip clocks, gyros and accelerometers,” the foundation noted in a blog post. “The risk to America is now. We need to provide a backup and complementary system for GPS now.


U.S. Space Command officials have for years voiced frustration about the cost and technical challenges of launching GPS satellites. The Air Force already is gearing up to deploy a new generation of spacecraft. Lockheed Martin Corp. is on contract to build the first eight GPS-3 satellites and has an option for an additional four. The first is scheduled to launch in 2017.


Something Special About Doing Business With SOCOM

May 2015

By Ariel Robinson


There is a reason why many defense contractors consider U.S. Special Operations Command a dream customer. SOCOM knows what it wants, and it moves quickly to get it. It follows the same federal procurement regulations as the conventional branches of the military, but its acquisitions move faster in large measure because it is smaller, controls its own budget and has a leaner bureaucracy.


With the Defense Department now focused on technological innovation in the military — or the lack thereof — SOCOM might offer some useful lessons, experts said.


Special operations equipment is procured by the office of acquisition, technology and logistics. SOF AT&L over time has fine-tuned its acquisition “best practices” and these are shaped by the unique missions of SOF units.


To understand this, consider how the conventional Army acquires its “soldier systems” — that is everything a soldier wears, shoots or carries, from boots and T-shirts to tactical radios and night-vision goggles.


Compared to how the regular Army buys equipment, special operations forces could not be more different. Designing and procuring a soldier system is a complex challenge, especially for the general purpose Army that must support a huge force of nearly a million soldiers.


As Andrew Fowler, vice president and general manager at Bates Footwear describes it, the Army tries to develop the “best products that can fit the broad spectrum of hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform to execute a wide range of tasks.”


A problem for the Army is that the defense acquisition process was designed for major weapon systems and is not well suited to the soldier system portfolio that has multiple components that have to be customized for particular missions. From a budgetary standpoint, the soldier “system” is more of a laundry list of items needed.


Additionally, the Army’s own practices make it difficult to buy the most innovative equipment. Many companies are hesitant to develop products for the Army because, unlike SOCOM, it places a greater focus on vendor competition and getting the lowest price than on buying the best product available. As one industry executive explained, the conventional force can only contract something that everyone could make; that way, it would get the most bidders, who would compete for the contract at the lowest price. “It ends up being more of a lowest common denominator dynamic.”


The practice of choosing the lowest-cost products, known as lowest price, technically acceptable, or LPTA, is standard when buying soldier systems. These heavily competed contracts have drawbacks, however, such as the possibility that the Army might be buying subpar products.


These issues are less problematic for SOCOM, which is only responsible for procuring “special operations peculiar” items, that is, items for which there is no service common requirement. If mission-specific needs are identified by operators in the field, SOCOM will adopt readily available commercial off-the-shelf or service-provided solutions even if they don’t fully meet the operator’s needs. “In some cases, a capability at 70 to 80 percent is acceptable when no current capability is in the field,” said Col. Joe Capobianco, SOF warrior’s program executive officer.


A SOCOM spokesman explained that operators in the field first identify equipment requirements. “These gaps are validated at the highest levels within the command and multiple technology solutions are analyzed as potential solutions to bridge gaps,” he told National Defense. “SOCOM will look at all currently available options including commercial-off-the-shelf solutions and items already fielded within the conventional services. Currently, SOCOM has SOF unique requirements across all portfolios to address niche requirements for individual equipment, survival, tactical, medical, weapons and vehicle systems.”


The command has its own requirements validation process, called Special Operation Forces Capabilities Integration and Development System.


SOCOM spends about $3 billion a year on equipment, compared to $14 billion by the U.S. Army. Its relatively small size and independent procurement authority gives SOCOM a distinct advantage. It can get things done fast. In the conventional force, competing priorities result in months, if not years, of bureaucratic churn as assumptions are questioned, risks are avoided and decisions are constantly reevaluated. For SOF, there’s no guesswork involved in determining the need; it has already been identified by operators in the field. The task then is to find the right solution as efficiently and expediently as possible.


Bob Mabry, special operations relationship manager at Battelle, said in a January National Defense article: “That’s exactly what the operational forces want. They want something that works. They want it now, and they want you out of the way.”


To industry representatives who are new to working with SOF, the rate at which things progress can be surprising. In mid-2006, officials from SOF and Bates Footwear connected at one of the hundreds of industry outreach events SOF AT&L attends each year. Ron Woznick, a Bates sales executive at Wolverine Worldwide, recalled that SOCOM was interested in a boot for “high-alpine, high-abrasion environments” like Tora Bora, Afghanistan, one of Osama bin Laden’s first suspected hideouts. A partnership between SOF, Bates, Wolverine and a sister company called Merrell (whose products were already being used by SOF) resulted in a completely new, American-made boot just over a year later. A contract of $1.8 million for 8,400 pairs of mountain footwear was awarded in August 2007. By May the following year, all 16,800 boots, named for the region they were needed for, were produced, delivered and fielded. It was the fastest move from an identified solution to an awarded contract Woznick had ever seen. “Decisions were made very quickly,” he said. They were willing to come to terms with trade-offs in order to get what they needed.


The story of the Tora Bora boot is not unique. It illustrates SOF AT&L’s key acquisition principles: Deliver capabilities to the user expeditiously, exploit proven techniques and methods, keep warfighters involved throughout the process, take risk and manage it, noted David Costello, head of the industry group Warrior Protection and Readiness Coalition.


When programs do fail or get terminated, the majority of the time that occurs early during developmental activities or combat evaluations, said the SOCOM spokesman. “If there are failures, the focus is on making that happen early, before a lot of resources are put against the effort. Once an effort has matured to a ‘project or program’ status, rarely are efforts canceled.”


Close communication between the product development team and the end users is another way SOF AT&L takes advantage of its small size and tight networks. In the case of the Tora Bora boot, SOF acquisition professionals were able to make quick decisions on trade-offs because operators were testing the product in the field and delivering direct feedback, which was then analyzed and applied to decisions.


Building relationships and expanding its network of partners is another area of emphasis at SOF AT&L. A recent National Defense article discussed the introduction of freeze-dried plasma to the SOF medical kit — a technology the French and Germans were already using by the time the Food and Drug Administration approved its use for SOF in 2012.


SOF AT&L has also increased its use of collaborative vehicles to leverage early partnerships with industry, academia and other government agencies. In 2014 it invested more than double the funds that the Defense Department did in Small Business Innovation Research, which resulted in new technologies like ruggedized digital cameras and miniature multi-band radar beacons.


In the conventional Army, the pressure to follow procedure and avoid risk is real. Acquisition professionals have become so bound to the processes that the Defense Department has had to rethink its guidance materials to make them broader in the hopes that they would empower the acquisition workforce to take things into its own hands and use the guidance as just that — guidance — instead of a checklist of actions.


Policy changes are only as effective as their subjects’ ability to implement them, though, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the slower the change. In the Army’s case, even when the authority exists to use more streamlined approaches for procuring soldier system components, applying that authority required so much justification that it is ultimately easier and faster to take the more traditional path, noted a 2014 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Another advantage that SOCOM has when buying equipment is the prestige and potential long-term opportunities associated with being a SOCOM supplier. “I’m not going to keep my factory running on SOF business,” said a senior industry official on the condition of anonymity, “but it’s the ultimate platform for innovation and grounding your brand [by] working with the most demanding customers.”


Direct input from the warfighter throughout the procurement process creates an acquisition culture of mutual accountability, said Oakley Director of Military Sales Erick Poston. “We pretty much get the direct input, which [is] fantastic and we would have it no other way, but it also comes with a responsibility — you have to build the best stuff.”


Trusting relationships are essential in the military procurement business, industry executives said. “They tell you exactly what is right and wrong with your product and with those absolute facts, you can figure out how to make it better,” said Fowler. “That’s very gratifying and encourages us to continue the relationship with them.”


But there is such a thing as too much access. Direct operator input is one of the most valued aspects of working with SOF, but it can be challenging. “They’re the alpha males of the alpha males,” said one industry representative whose company has worked with both SOF and the Army for decades. Even when a piece of kit undergoes a simple upgrade, end users from each service want the products to be service-specific. “We’re Navy and we’re blue; we’re Army and we’re green,” he said. It is no different with SOF.


Ariel Robinson is a contributing writer.




It’s not just you: Letters really are taking longer to get delivered

By Lisa Rein

April 27


The U.S. mail is slowing down.


In January, the Postal Service eliminated overnight delivery for local first-class letters that used to arrive the next day. Anywhere from 20 percent to half of the rest of the first-class mail sent every day now takes an extra day of delivery time.


Service standards have been relaxing since 2012, when the volume of first-class overnight mail decreased and that of two-and three-day mail grew. The changes are a response to declining mail volume and the resulting excess capacity in processing plants, and they’ve allowed the financially strapped Postal Service to save $865 million with the closure of a first round of 150 plants and another $750 million by shuttering 82 more starting in January.


The Postal Service calls the delivery changes “Network Rationalization.” To limit the damage for customers and mailers, officials have downplayed the longer delivery times. Asked about the plant closings in January in a speech at the National Press Club a few weeks before his retirement, former postmaster general Patrick Donahoe said that consolidating mail operations into fewer plants would save money and increase efficiency.


“When is the last time you got a piece of mail that had a stamp on it?” Donahoe told reporters. “This whole change represents at most 4 percent of the mail. We think it’s closer to about 2.5 percent. So you can’t hold an entire system hostage and continue to run up debt and continue to avoid making investments over 2 percent to 4 percent of the mail.”


A USPS fact sheet about the new standards, however, says they are affecting up to 16 percent of first-class mail, which is a lot more than Donahoe said. Others, from unions to members of Congress representing rural areas, say the number is much higher. There are many anecdotal reports of delays.


The first round of plant closings did not delay delivery times dramatically, since those plants were situated relatively close together. But the second, more recent round of closings is reverberating more, as trucks drive longer distances to more distant plants to pick up and deliver mail before it goes to local post offices.




Preliminary internal data shows that the Postal Service did not meet even its lower targets for first-class mail during the first seven weeks of 2015, with letters that are supposed to take three days (and four or five days if they’re headed to Alaska or Hawaii) arriving on time just 54 percent to 63 percent of the time.


The numbers show that for the first seven weeks of 2014, service was better: Three- to five-day delivery hovered between 77 percent and 85 percent of agency targets then.


The 2015 numbers, which will be made public in May, follow reports by the Postal Regulatory Commission and the Government Accountability Office, which found that national performance for single-piece first-class mail with 1-day, 2-day, and 3-5 day delivery standards declined throughout fiscal 2014 after a relatively good second quarter in fiscal 2013.


Postal officials have said that severe winter storms had a significant impact on performance results for many service standards, slowing trucks from driving mail to post offices or airports, where it was flown out.


Agency spokeswoman Sue Brennan called the numbers “preliminary” and noted that final information will go to regulators in May, showing improved service in recent weeks.


But she acknowledged that teams of operations experts are now deployed from USPS headquarters in Washington to numerous sites across the country to “help local management with various service issues.”


She declined to say which regions are getting help and, by extension, have the most serious service delays.


“Implementing changes of this magnitude in an organization the size of the Postal Service involves a learning curve,” Brennan said, referring to the plant closings.


“We acknowledge that pockets of the country have experienced some service delays in [January-March],” she said, “much due to the extreme weather but certainly not all. We have deployed headquarters-level operations teams to specific locations to provide on-site assistance with local management.”


The regulatory commission, in a March report on the Postal Service’s performance in fiscal 2014, wrote, “Weather cannot consistently be employed as a catchall excuse for failing to meet performance standards.”





Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who serves on the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, has long complained that her constituents are not getting mail in three days but in four or five days or longer.


“As service standards have slipped across the country, they’re slipping worse across rural America,” Heitkamp said in an interview. “If you continue to close processing centers … and pretend you’re meeting delivery standards when you’re not, you’re going to get bad service.”


“The three-day delivery standard in and out of rural areas has never been true,” she said.


White House cuts more than 630,000 security clearances

Andy Medici, Staff Writer

2:22 p.m. EDT April 27, 2015


The number of security clearances has fallen by 635,803 in the last year – about 12 percent – as the administration looks to cut down on the number of people who hold clearances.

The overall drop is a combination of 164,501 people who had a security clearance and had access to clearance-level information and the 471,302 who had a clearance but not regular access to clearance-level information, according to a recently released report.

The report, issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, stems from an administration effort to cut down the number of security clearances and evaluate how the government awards and administers its security clearances.

All security clearances


As of 10/01/2013

As of 10/01/2014

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“The ODNI, in partnership with OMB, OPM, and DoD, continues to drive improvements in the timeliness, accuracy and consistency of investigative and adjudicative clearance processes government-wide,” ODNI said in the report.

The administration launched the effort in the wake of high-profile security lapses such as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and in large-scale data breaches and oversight lapses at security clearance processing contractor USIS.

While security clearances among federal employees and contractors both fell, the number held by other individuals, such as researchers, grew by about 10 percent, according to the report.

Agencies also approved fewer new clearances than in fiscal 2013, according to the report. In 2013 agencies approved about 777,168 clearances, but only 665,437 new clearances in fiscal 2014.

The drop in clearances is directly attributable to administration efforts to cut back on the number of people with access to classified information, according to the report.

“These decreases were the result of efforts across the USG to review and validate whether an employee or contractor still requires access to classified information,” the report said.




Ex-Nasa man to plant one billion trees a year using drones

by Press • 28 April 2015





A drone start-up is going to counter industrial scale deforestation using industrial scale reforestation.

BioCarbon Engineering wants to use drones for good, using the technology to seed up to one billion trees a year, all without having to set foot on the ground.

26 billion trees are currently being burned down every year while only 15 billion are replanted. If successful, the initiative could help address this shortfall in a big way.

Drones should streamline reforestation considerably, with hand-planting being slow and expensive.

“The only way we’re going to take on these age-old problems is with techniques that weren’t available to us before,” CEO and former Nasa-engineer Lauren Fletcher said. “By using this approach we can meet the scale of the problem out there.”

BioCarbon’s system for planting is really quite sophisticated, and should provide better uptake than traditional dry seeding by air.

First, drones flies above an area and report on its potential for restoration, then they descend to two or three metres above ground and fire out pods containing seeds that are pre-germinated and covered in a nutritious hydrogel.

Fletcher doesn’t pretend that the method is as good as hand-sowing, but it’s a hell of a lot quicker.

With two operators manning multiple drones, he thinks it should be possible to plant up to 36,000 trees a day, and at around 15% of the cost of traditional methods.

A prototype for the system impressed at the Drones for Good competition in the United Arab Emirates, and the company hopes to have fully-working versions by the end of the summer.



Why U.S. Grid Still Vulnerable to Cyber Attack


Utilities and their business partners play an unintentional role in increasing the electrical grid’s vulnerability to cyber attack.

On Dec. 10, the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) released a troubling update about an ongoing, sophisticated malware campaign that had compromised “numerous” industrial control system environments inside utilities and companies in other sectors. Several organizations working with ICS-CERT identified the malware, known as BlackEnergy, on a variety of human-machine interface (HMI) products connected to the Internet.

Electric utilities use HMIs to help monitor and operate the grid; they also act as a user interface to the industrial control systems that generate, transmit, and distribute electricity.

ICS-CERT’s analysis of the malware campaign suggests the actors behind it targeted organizations running specific HMI products vulnerable to cyber attack and executed the campaign to discover and compromise unpatched systems. While ICS-CERT had not identified any attempts to damage, modify, or otherwise disrupt the compromised systems at the time it released its update, the team noted intruders could potentially expand their access beyond the compromised HMIs into the underlying control systems. For utilities running vulnerable HMIs, this means attackers could conceivably gain access to the bulk electric system (BES) that runs the grid.

The BlackEnergy malware campaign underscores the complexity and sophistication of many of the cyber threats facing the grid. It also illustrates a major point of entry for attackers—specifically, security flaws in device software.

Widespread use of legacy systems and the variety of equipment in some power companies’ environments can make it hard for utilities to stay on top of newly identified security flaws and patch management. While manufacturers routinely issue software patches for the industrial control systems, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and other operational technologies in use among utilities, the need to maintain smooth, day-to-day business operations typically limits how promptly or consistently they apply them. But as attackers increasingly target the grid, the risk of unanticipated disruption caused by a cyber attack may significantly outweigh the risk of limited disruption caused by a controlled patch management process.

Security flaws in device software are among three major vulnerabilities at attackers’ disposal. As in other industries, adversaries take advantage of basic lapses in IT and physical security controls, such as misconfiguration of firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and other perimeter devices. Weak password practices and poorly defined user access policies make it easier for hackers to masquerade as legitimate users. Ill-designed segregation of networked assets (like industrial control systems devices) can allow attackers to access substations and distribution systems once inside the corporate environment. Meanwhile, lapses in physical security may literally leave doors open for intruders, allowing them to walk into facilities and plant malware on systems with simple USB devices.

While not a vulnerability per se, the digitization the power industry is pursuing also opens it up to greater cyber risk, as is the case with many other industries. As utilities adopt more digital technologies inside substations, implement smart meters, modernize grid systems, and integrate back-office systems, new avenues for accidental and malicious disruption emerge.

Factors like digitization, lax controls, and flawed devices have made attacking the grid from thousands of miles away exponentially easier for both well-organized, well-financed nation states and for individual hackers that use crude, pre-built crimeware tools to execute their attacks. With just a few keystrokes and invisible bits of code planted on substation devices, attackers could remotely unleash malware that destroys equipment, causes widespread outages, creates unsafe facility conditions, and ultimately threatens public safety and results in substantial economic costs. Shrouded by the relative anonymity of the Internet, attackers may skirt law enforcement agencies’ efforts to find and prosecute them.

Today’s cyber attacks rarely consist of a single action or event. Advanced persistent threats may lurk undetected for weeks or months inside organizations lacking adequate monitoring capabilities. Therefore, addressing threats to the grid requires a combination of activities and initiatives, including executive engagement, information sharing, advanced monitoring, an industrywide commitment to device security, and perhaps above all, a risk-oriented, multifaceted program focused on being secure, vigilant, and resilient.

—by Sharon Chand, director, Deloitte & Touche LLP; Steve Livingston, principal, Deloitte & Touche LLP; and David Nowak, senior manager, Deloitte & Touche LLP



House panel approves $612 billion authorization bill



By Leo Shane III, Staff writer 10:55 a.m. EDT April 30, 2015


The House Armed Services Committee early Thursday adopted a $612 billion defense authorization bill which would radically reform military retirement but reject changes to a host of other benefit trims proposed by the Pentagon.


By a 60-2 vote, the panel approved the annual budget legislation after almost 19 hours of debate, setting the stage for a full House vote in mid-May. The bill is one of the most-followed measures among the defense community, because of the hundreds of policy renewals and revisions involved.


This year, that includes provisions again rejecting Defense Department pleas for another base closure round, full funding for commissary operations despite Pentagon plans for trims, and passive support for a 2.3 percent pay raise despite White House insistence that a lower, 1.3 percent hike would better help control personnel costs.


The measure also outlines plans to plus up temporary war spending to more than $89 billion in fiscal 2016 in an effort to get around spending caps mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act.


White House officials have threatened to veto any budget bills that fail to repeal those spending caps, but Republicans in Congress have instead opted to use the contingency funding as a way to boost military spending without providing budget relief for other, non-defense agencies.


The retirement reforms — which follow recommendations from a two-year independent commission review — would update the current 20-years, all-or-nothing system with a blended benefits package featuring 401(k) style investments for all troops.


Supporters have praised that move as finally giving some retirement benefits to the 83 percent of troops who serve less than 20 years, but opponents worry that plans to cut pension-style payouts by one-fifth could hurt retention of senior service members.


The measure includes a number of new provisions for handling of sexual assault cases, including expanded access to legal resources for victims and improved services for male victims.


But the House panel again rejected efforts to separate those prosecutions from the military chain of command, a priority of some advocates who argue the military justice system has proven inadequate to handle such cases.


The pay raise issue is likely only a temporary victory for supporters of a biggest boost to troops wallets.


Although panel members said they support the larger raise, they did not include any specific language in the measure mandating the 2.3 percent target. That would allow the president to easily substitute his lower, 1.3 percent hike later this year.


Unlike last year, the authorization bill draft does not include a freeze on basic pay for general and flag officers in paygrades O-7 through O-10.


Lawmakers also dismissed Pentagon plans to further trim back housing allowances, another personnel cost-savings move made in last year’s bill.


The full House is expected to consider the authorization bill draft in mid-May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee expected to offer its own version around the same time.


Lawmakers will spend much of the summer reconciling the competing provisions in the hopes of sending the measure to the president’s desk before the start of the new fiscal year in October.


How To Hack a Military Drone

April 29, 2015 By Aliya Sternstein Nextgov \

Research studies on drone vulnerabilities published in recent years essentially provided hackers a how-to guide for hijacking unmanned aircraft, an Israeli defense manufacturer said Monday.

A real-life downing of a CIA stealth drone by Iranians occurred a month after one such paper was published, noted Esti Peshin, director of cyber programs for Israel Aerospace Industries, a major defense contractor. In December 2011, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Iran navigated a CIA unmanned aerial vehicle safely down to the ground by manipulating the aircraft’s GPS coordinates. 

The 2011 study, co-authored by Nils Ole Tippenhauer of ETH Zurich and other ETH and University of California academics, was titled “The Requirements for Successful GPS Spoofing Attacks.” The scholars detailed how to mimic GPS signals to fool GPS receivers that aid navigation.

“It’s a PDF file… essentially, a blueprint for hackers,” Peshin said.

Peshin said she does not know whether the CIA drone was overtaken using GPS spoofing or even whether the attacker read the study. But she underscored how easily available the publication is online.  

“You can Google, just look up ‘Tippenhauer’ — it’s the first result in Google. Look up ‘UAV cyberattacks’ — it’s the third one. ‘UAV GPS spoofing attacks’ — the first one,” Peshin said. She was speaking at the Defensive Cyberspace Operations and Intelligence conference, an Israeli-American summit held in Washington.

In the study, the researchers explained where an attacker must be located to generate fake signals capable of fooling GPS receivers. They also described ways to replace legitimate signals with an attacker’s bogus signals, so the target ends up “losing the ability to calculate its position.” 

The authors of the Swiss study offered some advice on how to neutralize GPS deception, for instance, by hiding the exact positions of GPS receivers. Their intention was not to aid and abet terrorists, but rather to highlight “effective receiver-based countermeasures, which are not implemented yet in current standard GPS receivers,” the researchers said.

While the academics did not mean any harm, hackers could have quickly exploited their instructions before vendors had time to fortify satellite-guided vehicles, Peshin said. 

“The fact is that we are slower than the bad guys and the bad guys could take this article and render it into a form of an attack,” she said. “One of the things that keeps me up at night is cybersecurity for operational networks, military systems, weapons systems.”

The 2011 study is not the only research that Peshin loses sleep over, she said. She pointed to a 2013 NATO risk assessment of unmanned aircraft.

“At the end of the article, as if this was not enough, they listed several UAVs and said these are riskier than others by the way,” Peshin said.

Among those named were the American MQ-9 Reaper and the drone purportedly attacked by Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel. The UAV manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries was not named, Peshin noted. 

She declined to comment on changes made to drone security after the papers were released. 

The Pentagon is currently working to insulate UAV navigation and surveillance from outside interference. Specifically, special software on a forthcoming hacker-proof Boeing Little Bird helicopter drone would shield communications from tampering. 



The Age of Drone Vandalism Begins With an Epic NYC Tag

by Press • 1 May 2015


IN THE EARLY hours of Wednesday morning, the age of robotic graffiti was born. KATSU, a well-known graffiti artist and vandal, used a hacked Phantom drone to paint a giant red scribble across Kendall Jenner’s face on one of New York City’s largest and most viewed billboards. By all accounts, it is the first time that a drone has been deployed for a major act of public vandalism.

In April last year, KATSU made headlines when he demonstrated that he had figured out how to attach a spray can to an off-the-shelf DJI Phantom drone. At the time, he was only using the drone to paint canvasses for white-wall galleries. But he assured the world that soon he would take his mad invention out into the streets and create enormous tags in places that were previously inaccessible to even the most daring and acrobatic taggers. Now, he appears to have made good on his promise in grand fashion.

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