WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s effort to assess and strengthen America’s defense-industrial base is backing off plans to survey hundreds of companies to identify weak spots, the Pentagon has confirmed.
The cross-government effort now plans to use data the government already collects, rather than burdening defense firms by asking for their proprietary data, Pentagon officials have been privately telling leaders at major U.S. defense trade associations.
Government and industry sources said the effort lagged over how to draft a less invasive questionnaire and over approvals from the Office of Management and Budget, required under the Paperwork Reduction Act.
On Thursday, the Pentagon acknowledged the survey process had been halted, but may restart.
“The survey may still occur but would be part of phase two of the effort, and will be coordinated appropriately with OMB,” Pentagon Spokesman Adam Stump said in an email. “We stopped the survey process as of now, so the clearance from OMB was overcome by events."
In compliance with a sweeping executive order from President Donald Trump earlier this year, more than a dozen working groups from across government have been studying the defense-industrial base to recommend ways to cover gaps and weaknesses. Those groups include representatives from the Pentagon and other agencies like the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security.
By mid-April, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis must provide the president with an unclassified report, with a classified annex.
By embracing a pro-military, pro-business image, Trump has set high expectations for a military buildup that could be a windfall to the defense industry. Still, Trump has yet to prevail over the congressional politics that preserve the sector’s worst enemies: the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending caps and their enforcement mechanism — sequestration.
Could new information change those politics? With the executive order, Trump ordered a deep dive into the health of the vast network of suppliers to America’s national security apparatus, looking at the raw materials, physical plant capacity, energy management and so-called single-point-of-failure capabilities.
The second phase of the effort will include a series of simulated stress tests, or war games, for the defense-industrial base, to see how well certain subsets are prepared to surge in certain war scenarios.
To feed those models, the plan for now is to rely on the government’s existing data, and where there are gaps, conduct targeted focus groups, town halls and listening sessions with industry to learn more, according to the Department of Defense.
Already the working groups are using data from Bureau of Industry and Security surveys, Bureau of Labor statistics and DoD industrial base assessments, among other sources.
Leading the review is the Pentagon is the Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy, headed by the new deputy assistant secretary, Eric Chewning, and his principal deputy, Jerry McGinn.
McGinn said in a September public appearance that the aim of the survey is to find and address gaps in what the federal government knows.
“We can make estimates and do it on our own, but the greater the information we have from industry on their challenges — because we have some known knowns, but there are a lot of areas where we don’t know,” he said.
To contrast it with the Obama administration’s sweeping, compulsory Sector-by-Sector, Tier-by-Tier (S2T2) evaluation of the defense-industrial base, the Trump administration has stressed the planned survey was to be narrow and voluntary. Still, accommodating industry proved a challenge.
“I think they were having trouble pulling together the right set of questions, in a way that would protect information from large swaths of industry,” Aerospace Industries Association CEO David Melcher told reporters last week. “In some cases, maybe they thought it would have been duplicative of some other work they had done previously.”
To assist the new evaluation, AIA is leaning in with an industrial-base working group comprised of its member companies. The aim is to “give them the whole-of-industry picture,” Melcher said, beyond the prime contractors with which the DoD is most familiar “because, quite honestly, 170 of our 348 member companies are in the tier-three [and] -four companies.”
“We have the ability to provide anecdotal and factual information about what’s happening in tiers one, two, three and four,” Melcher said. “DoD will have to take all these inputs and figure out how to make it into a credible response to the president.”
Valerie Insinna and Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.