Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations: DOD Needs to Take Action to Help Ensure Superiority

What GAO Found

The electromagnetic spectrum (the spectrum) consists of frequencies worldwide that support many civilian and military uses, from mobile phone networks and radios to navigation and weapons. This invisible battlespace is essential to Department of Defense (DOD) operations in all domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. The interruption of U.S. forces’ access to the spectrum can result in a military disadvantage, preventing U.S. forces from operating as planned and desired.

According to the studies by DOD and others that GAO reviewed for its December 2020 report on military operations in the spectrum, adversaries, such as China and Russia, are also aware of the importance of the spectrum and have taken significant steps to improve their own capabilities that challenge DOD and its operations. For example, studies described how China has formed new military units and fielded new unmanned aerial vehicles with spectrum warfare capabilities, and Russian electromagnetic warfare forces have demonstrated their effectiveness through successful real-world applications against U.S. and foreign militaries. These developments are particularly concerning in the context of challenges to DOD’s spectrum superiority. GAO’s analysis of the studies highlighted DOD management challenges such as dispersed governance, limited full-time senior-level leadership, outdated capabilities, a lengthy acquisition process, increased spectrum competition and congestion, and a gap in experienced staff and realistic training.

GAO found that DOD had issued strategies in 2013 and 2017 to address spectrum-related challenges, but did not fully implement either strategy because DOD did not assign senior leaders with appropriate authorities and resources or establish oversight processes for implementation. DOD published a new strategy in October 2020, but GAO found in December 2020 the department risks not achieving the new strategy’s goals because it had not taken key actions—such as identifying processes and procedures to integrate spectrum operations across the department, reforming governance structures, and clearly assigning leadership for strategy implementation. Also, it had not developed oversight processes, such as an implementation plan, that would help ensure accountability and implementation of the 2020 strategy goals (see figure).

Actions to Ensure DOD Superiority in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Why GAO Did This Study

The spectrum is essential for facilitating control in operational environments and affects operations in the air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace domains. Spectrum use is pervasive across warfighting domains and thus maintaining or achieving spectrum superiority against an adversary is critical to battlefield success.

This statement summarizes: (1) the importance of the spectrum; (2) challenges to DOD’s superiority in the spectrum; and (3) the extent to which DOD has implemented spectrum-related strategies and is positioned to achieve future goals.

This statement is based on GAO’s December 2020 report (GAO-21-64) and updates conducted in March 2021. For the report, GAO analyzed 43 studies identified through a literature review, reviewed DOD documentation, and interviewed DOD officials and subject matter experts. For the updates, GAO reviewed materials that DOD provided in March 2021.

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    What GAO Found In its March 2021 high-risk series update, GAO reported that significant attention was needed to improve the federal government's management of information technology (IT) acquisitions and operations, and ensure the nation's cybersecurity. Regarding management of IT, overall progress in addressing this area has remained unchanged. Since 2019, GAO has emphasized that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and covered federal agencies need to continue to fully implement critical requirements of federal IT acquisition reform legislation, known as the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), to better manage tens of billions of dollars in IT investments. For example: OMB continued to demonstrate leadership commitment by issuing guidance to implement FITARA statutory provisions, but sustained leadership and expanded capacity were needed to improve agencies' management of IT. Agencies continued to make progress with reporting FITARA milestones and plans to modernize or replace obsolete IT investments, but significant work remained to complete these efforts. Agencies improved the involvement of their agency Chief Information Officers in the acquisition process, but greater cost savings could be achieved if IT acquisition shortcomings, such as reducing duplicative IT contracts, were addressed. In March 2021, GAO reiterated the need for agencies to address four major cybersecurity challenges facing the nation: (1) establishing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and performing effective oversight, (2) securing federal systems and information, (3) protecting cyber critical infrastructure, and (4) protecting privacy and sensitive data. GAO identified 10 actions for agencies to take to address these challenges. However, since 2019, progress in this area has regressed—GAO's 2021 rating of leadership commitment declined from met to partially met. To help address the leadership vacuum, in January 2021, Congress enacted a statute establishing the Office of the National Cyber Director. Although the director position has not yet been filled, on April 12 the President announced his intended nominee. Overall, the federal government needs to move with a greater sense of urgency to fully address cybersecurity challenges. In particular: Develop and execute a more comprehensive federal strategy for national cybersecurity and global cyberspace. In September 2020, GAO reported that the cyber strategy and implementation plan addressed some, but not all, of the desirable characteristics of national strategies, such as goals and resources needed. Mitigate global supply chain risks. In December 2020, GAO reported that few of the 23 civilian federal agencies it reviewed implemented foundational practices for managing information and communication technology supply chain risks. Enhance the federal response to cyber incidents. In July 2019, GAO reported that most of 16 selected federal agencies had deficiencies in at least one of the activities associated with incident response processes. Why GAO Did This Study The effective management and protection of IT has been a longstanding challenge in the federal government. Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments; however, many of these investments have failed or performed poorly and often have suffered from ineffective management. Accordingly, GAO added improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations as a high-risk area in February 2015. Information security has been on the high-risk area since 1997. In its March 2021 high-risk update, GAO reported that significant actions were required to address IT acquisitions and operations. Further, GAO noted the urgent need for agencies to take 10 specific actions on four major cybersecurity challenges. GAO was asked to testify on federal agencies' efforts to address the management of IT and cybersecurity. For this testimony, GAO relied primarily on its March 2021 high-risk update and selected prior work across IT and cybersecurity topics.
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  • Man Charged with COVID-Relief Fraud
    In Crime News
    A New York man was charged in a criminal complaint unsealed today for his alleged participation in a scheme to defraud multiple financial institutions by filing bank loan applications that fraudulently sought forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
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  • Survivors of Childhood Cancer: Factors Affecting Access to Follow-up Care
    In U.S GAO News
    Stakeholders GAO interviewed and studies GAO reviewed identified three factors that affect access to follow-up care for childhood cancer survivors—individuals of any age who were diagnosed with cancer from ages 0 through 19. These factors are care affordability, survivors' and health care providers' knowledge of appropriate care, and proximity to care. Childhood cancer survivors need access to follow-up care over time for serious health effects known as late effects—such as developmental problems, heart conditions, and subsequent cancers—which result from their original cancer and its treatment. Affordability: Survivors of childhood cancer may have difficulty paying for follow-up care, which can affect their access to this care. For example, one study found that survivors were significantly more likely to have difficulty paying medical bills and delay medical care due to affordability concerns when compared to individuals with no history of cancer. Knowledge: Survivors' access to appropriate follow-up care for late effects of childhood cancer can depend on both survivors' and providers' knowledge about such care, which can affect access in various ways, according to stakeholders GAO interviewed and studies GAO reviewed: Some survivors may have been treated for cancer at an early age and may have limited awareness of the need for follow- up care. Some primary or specialty care providers may not be knowledgeable about guidelines for appropriate follow-up care, which can affect whether a survivor receives recommended treatment. Follow-up care may include psychosocial care (e.g., counseling), and palliative care (e.g., pain management). Proximity: Survivors may have difficulty reaching appropriate care settings. Stakeholders GAO interviewed and studies GAO reviewed noted that childhood cancer survivors may have to travel long distances to receive follow-up care from multidisciplinary outpatient clinics—referred to as childhood cancer survivorship clinics. The lack of proximity may make it particularly difficult for survivors with limited financial resources to adhere to recommended follow-up care. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that conduct activities specific to childhood cancer survivors, including research about access to care—have taken steps to implement three provisions in the Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access, and Research Act of 2018 (Childhood Cancer STAR Act) relevant to access to care for survivors. For example, CDC has awarded a contract to develop software to improve the collection of information on individuals with childhood cancer, and NCI has funded three research projects focused on interventions aimed at addressing adverse outcomes among childhood cancer survivors. NCI has also funded research to study the health status and use of follow-up services of 2,000 young adult survivors. Stakeholders have raised questions about the ability of childhood cancer survivors to access needed follow-up care. According to the most recent data available, approximately 465,000 childhood cancer survivors—children, adolescents, and adults—were alive in the United States as of January 1, 2017. Although the 5-year survival rate for childhood cancer has increased from about 62 percent in the mid-1970s to about 86 percent in the mid-2010s, childhood cancer survivors may face late effects, which could require follow-up care across multiple stages of their lives. The conference report accompanying Public Law 115-245 included a provision for GAO to report on barriers to obtaining medical care for childhood cancer survivors, including psychosocial services and palliative care. This report identifies factors reported to affect access to follow-up care for this population. GAO spoke with officials from NCI and CDC and interviewed stakeholders such as providers who care for childhood cancer survivors, professional associations, and advocacy groups. Additionally, GAO reviewed peer-reviewed studies related to access to care for survivors, outcomes of treatment they may receive, and factors that may affect their access to follow-up care. To supplement this work, GAO reviewed the status of selected HHS activities to support access to care for childhood cancer survivors, including steps taken to implement selected provisions in the Childhood Cancer STAR Act. GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS for review and comment. HHS provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or FarbJ@gao.gov.
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  • Former Owner of Florida Produce Business Pleads Guilty to Tax Evasion
    In Crime News
    A Florida man pleaded guilty today to tax evasion in federal district court in Fort Lauderdale. 
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  • While Stargazing on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Rover Spots Earth and Venus
    In Space
    This new portrait of the [Read More…]
  • Retirement Security: Other Countries’ Experiences with Caregiver Policies
    In U.S GAO News
    For over a decade, Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) have developed and implemented national approaches—including strategies, laws, and policies—to support family caregivers, according to experts GAO interviewed. Specifically, experts noted that these efforts could help caregivers maintain workforce attachment, supplement lost income, and save for retirement. As a result, their retirement security could improve. For example, experts said: Care leave allows employees to take time away from work for caregiving responsibilities. Australia's and Germany's policies allow for paid leave (10 days per year of work or instance of caregiving need, respectively), and all three countries allow for unpaid leave though the duration varies. Caregivers can receive income for time spent caregiving. Australia and the UK provide direct payments to those who qualify. Germany provides indirect payments, whereby the care recipient receives an allowance, which they can pass on to their caregiver. Other Countries' Policies to Support Caregivers Experts in all three countries cited some challenges with caregiver support policies. For example, paid leave is not available to all workers in Germany, such as those who work for small firms. In Australia and the UK, experts said eligibility requirements for direct payments (e.g., limits on hours worked or earnings) can make it difficult for someone to work outside their caregiving role. Experts in all three countries said caregivers may be unaware of available supports. For example, identifying caregivers is a challenge in Australia and the UK. As required under the RAISE Family Caregivers Act, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convened the Family Caregiving Advisory Council (FCAC)—a stakeholder group that is to jointly develop a national family caregiving strategy. As of July 2020, HHS and the FCAC reported limited information on other countries' approaches, and neither entity had concrete plans to collect more. In September 2020, HHS officials provided sources they recently reviewed on selected policies in other countries, and they further noted that HHS staff, FCAC members, and collaborating partners have subject-matter expertise and bring perspectives about other countries' efforts into their discussions. Family caregivers play a critical role in supporting the elderly population, which is growing at a rapid rate worldwide. However, those who provide eldercare may risk their own long-term financial security. Other countries have implemented policies to support caregivers. In recognition of challenges caregivers face in the United States, Congress directed HHS, in consultation with other federal entities, to develop a national family caregiving strategy. GAO was asked to provide information about other countries' efforts that could improve the retirement security of parental and spousal caregivers. This report examines (1) other countries' approaches to support family members who provide eldercare, (2) challenges of these approaches, and (3) the status of HHS' efforts to develop a national family caregiving strategy. GAO conducted case studies of three countries—Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom—selected based on factors including rates of informal care (i.e., help provided to older family members or friends) and the types of policies they have that could improve caregivers' retirement security. GAO interviewed government officials and experts and reviewed relevant federal laws, research, and documents. GAO's draft report recommended that HHS collect additional information about other countries' experiences. In response, in September 2020, HHS provided an update on its efforts to do so. As a result, GAO removed the recommendation and modified the report accordingly. For more information, contact Tranchau (Kris) T. Nguyen at or nguyentt@gao.gov.
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  • United States Files Complaint Against Nutter Home Loans for Forging Certifications and Using Unqualified Underwriters to Approve Government-Insured Reverse Mortgages
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 and the False Claims Act against Nutter Home Loans, f/k/a James B. Nutter & Co. (Nutter), for forging certifications and using unqualified underwriters to approve Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECM), the Department of Justice announced today. 
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