DISA Enters New Era of Opportunity

March 2006
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

Last summer’s Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) change of command was bittersweet for the information technology community, as we said farewell to one friend and welcome aboard to another. It also was a reflection of how blessed our nation is that as we make changes at the highest levels in our armed forces and their agencies, we continue to provide superb leadership and management. Even when styles and methods are different, the change almost always turns out to be healthy.

DISA has been blessed by a “long purple line” of excellent leaders over the years. Now, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Charles E. Croom Jr., USAF, the agency enters yet another era rife with opportunity—one that can benefit its customer, the warfighter, to a greater degree than ever.

Gen. Croom identifies his DISA modus operandi as his ABCs. Rather than an intimation of alphabetical simplicity, the general’s ABCs are an acronym that refers to his priority list for how DISA will acquire technologies and capabilities in the future.

The “A” on that list stands for adopt. The general maintains that his agency will do what it can to take advantage of past investments by adopting both what is in the marketplace and what is in the U.S. Defense Department inventory. This approach is at the heart of providing network connectivity to the warfighter.

The “B” is for buy. If the agency cannot adopt something already on the shelf, then it will go to the marketplace and buy what is needed. While this lacks the economic savings of using what is at hand, it nonetheless takes advantage of the efficiency in commercial developments.

If neither A nor B can help DISA carry out its mission, then the agency will employ its “C”—create. Only if all other avenues fail to produce the needed goods or services will the agency generate its own customized solution.

And, the solution is geared to one goal: serving the warfighter. Gen. Croom’s ABC approach will serve that warfighter quicker, and it is a clear message to industry that DISA is serious about institutionalizing this approach. Occasionally in the past DISA had been accused of having its ABCs in the wrong order by looking to create before it adopted or bought. The new ABC approach leaves no room for ambiguity.

But Gen. Croom’s message does not stop there. Having the right approach to serving the warfighter is only part of the solution. Another key element is ensuring that the warfighter receives his or her vital tools rapidly. In Gen. Croom’s words, speed matters.

This entails speed of acquisition and speed of getting the tools required to win the global war on terrorism into the hands of those warfighters who are engaging the enemy. This message applies to all members of the defense information systems community—from Capitol Hill through the Pentagon and throughout industry. Gen. Croom is adamant about finding ways to use the acquisition process to bring the power of the network down to the warfighter.

The nature of network-centricity is changing the way that DISA serves the warfighter. At one time, defense communications were almost entirely home grown. Later, as the telecommunications revolution took hold, the department shifted to buying increasing amounts of commercial services for the force.

When former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration John Stenbit laid the groundwork for the Global Information Grid–Bandwidth Expansion (GIG-BE), the effort included establishment of an enormous fiber backbone on the terrestrial side. Coupled with the transformational satellite communications system in the space arena, the military again will have its own state-of-the-art network infrastructure. Commercial services will continue to play a significant role—the “B” function—but DISA will be able to tap dedicated systems to help bring advanced network services to its customers.

Another DISA mission is responsibility for global network assurance. Gen. Croom also serves as a commander of Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations (JTF-GNO), in which he reports to Gen. James E. Cartwright, USMC, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). There is no question in the Defense Department that the JTF-GNO is the lead in network operations. Each of the service components that reports to the JTF-GNO understands its leader’s vision. And, these components know how to apply his concepts and methods to the service level. This ensures that these service-level efforts integrate totally across the Defense Department.

It is refreshing to see Gen. Croom’s leadership style being accepted along with the followship of the service components. The combination of these two is generating an overall strategy for network operations across the department. I would not be surprised to see that approach being expanded across the intelligence community and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

With the increased influence of STRATCOM in the network operations arena—and the JTF-GNO serving as the executive agency for network operations—the generals and admirals who lead their services’ communications elements truly understand the worth of the leadership role that Gen. Croom brings to the battlespace. Ultimately, this leadership from DISA may be the key to bringing the power of the network down to the individual warfighter on whom we rely for so much.