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DISA Shines as Change Beckons

January 2004
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

It’s time for us to admit that operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom both were victories for the command and control capability provided by the Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA. The military’s communications provider rose to the occasion and served up a platter of bandwidth to information-hungry network-centric forces. The result was two overwhelming victories that reinforced the concept of information as the linchpin for U.S. military supremacy.

Now, DISA enters a new era in which its status as a Defense Department agency is taking on an operational role. It is becoming a part of a combatant command, and this promises to alter DISA’s character as well as its standing within the defense community.

Just consider the increase in available bandwidth—compared with the 1991 Gulf War—that U.S. forces enjoyed recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. It represented a quantum leap over the capabilities in what was described a decade ago as “the first information war.” However you want to measure it—bandwidth per warfighter, bandwidth per distance, bandwidth per workstation, or total bandwidth—the increase was enormous. DISA provided huge amounts of this bandwidth through satellite transponder leases and micromanagement of military satellite communications assets.

This approach proved not only effective, but also smart. Suppose DISA had been tasked years ago with simply leasing all the available satellite transponders on a long-term basis to provide guaranteed access when needed. These transponders would have gone largely unused for years, and the agency in turn would have run up a large bill for unnecessary and unused services.

That would have provided guaranteed access for U.S. forces in wartime, of course. However, having those orbital birds in hand might also have blunted the agency’s skill at assembling extraordinary bandwidth capabilities during key surge periods—such as simultaneous operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, this ability to provide satellite communications in a pinch is one of the defining elements of DISA’s victory.

In fact, many warriors from those two conflicts relate how they received too much information—not too little. This is a far cry from the longtime adage that there never is enough bandwidth. For the first time, warfighters found themselves struggling with a surfeit of data, not a shortage.

We as a nation must wrestle with the question of how much is the right amount of satellite communications. The transformational communications architecture currently being planned in the Pentagon will lead to a reduction in the amount of commercial satellite communications used by the military. Determining the best ratio of military to commercial satellite communications usage, however, still is best left to DISA.

As an agency, DISA is required to provide satellite communications around the globe. Comparatively, it is more expensive to provide satellite communications for Diego Garcia, for example, than for Iraq. However, DISA also must have a fixed cost of maintaining the communications satellite constellation around the globe. This can limit the agency’s flexibility for economical satellite communications. Yet, it was able to meet the challenge.

Another laudable point about DISA involves the agency’s hosting of joint task force computer network operations. Throughout the past year, many of the panels at AFCEA events discussing the Iraq War praised the fact that no one’s network was taken down. This assured information integrity is another feather in DISA’s cap.

And, this particular DISA strength should become even more enhanced by the agency’s major change in status. DISA is becoming a reporting element of the U.S. Strategic Command, or USSTRATCOM, where it will be a component command for command and control.

The move to USSTRATCOM should strengthen the way U.S. forces will set up communications in the future. USSTRATCOM is the strategic command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) executive agent for the Defense Department. It makes sense for the strategic provider of bandwidth—DISA—to report directly to the USSTRATCOM commander. This way, DISA becomes part of the C4I solution set for the combatant commander.

This is a logical move for DISA instead of remaining just a “Washington Agency,” which many considered an outsider. Now, DISA will be inside the tent of a combatant command where the services may be more reluctant to criticize their communications provider—the combatant commander—than they currently are with the head of an agency.

The recent operational successes in Afghanistan and Iraq have spawned many heroes, and rightly so. In the joint arena, wars are won by contributions from virtually every individual and organization in the military. And, the network-centric era is strengthening the concept of teamwork to a greater degree than ever before. Yet, I believe that it does no harm to recognize the efforts of a relatively unsung group that has played a key role in victory. DISA rightly deserves accolades as it moves unhesitatingly into a dynamic new future.