DISA Drives Deeper Into the Battlespace

April 15, 2008
by Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Not content with being a global service provider, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is striving to extend its network to take advantage of new capabilities that it is introducing into the force. Many of these new capabilities magnify the power of the network as it reaches the tactical edge, and they may change the nature of communications and information flow.

At the heart of these new capabilities is the private sector. Whether leasing commercial satellite bandwidth or adapting Web 2.0 capabilities, DISA will be relying heavily on the commercial world to help feed its customers’ hunger for connectivity. And, companies that want to sell capabilities and services to DISA must demonstrate how they are using those very capabilities and services.

“The commercial world has speed and agility,” observes Lt. Gen. Charles E. Croom Jr., USAF, DISA director and commander of the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations (JTF-GNO). “We’re watching that, we’re learning from that and we’re trying to emulate it.”

DISA’s two major ongoing software applications—Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) and Net-Enabled Command Capability (NECC)—are fundamental to bringing Web 2.0-type services to Defense Department functions, Gen. Croom says. They apply to diverse areas ranging from command and control (C2) to business areas, and they must be matured and implemented across the defense community.

One innovation is storage on demand. Instead of the traditional way of buying boxes, DISA has arranged with several vendors to have computing and storage services available at its computing centers. This storage effectively is a utility that can be turned on by the user, who pays only for what actually is used. DISA has been able to cut the time of delivery for these services from as long as six months to an average of two weeks, the general reports.

DISA also is pushing for everything over IP (EoIP) across the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN). This extends across the core to services at the tactical edge.

The agency soon will be introducing its Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device, or SME PED. Similar to a BlackBerry, SME PED will include both classified and unclassified e-mail and voice. Two vendors—General Dynamics and L-3—are providing the device, and the National Security Agency has brought together the initial network. DISA will take over and operate that network.

Operations in Southwest Asia in support of the Global War on Terrorism have affected DISA operations. Gen. Croom emphasizes that while many customers view the agency as a provider of core services, it increasingly is reaching out to the tactical edge. DISA personnel in Southwest Asia built and engineered the largest deployed network in the world, he declares.

The agency is using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) in Southwest Asia, and it is trying to expand that usage. The biggest hurdle is a lack of standards, and DISA is working with industry to establish single commercial standards. Gen. Croom relates how two groups in Southwest Asia provided VoIP capabilities in theater, but the two systems could not talk to one another. That situation has been cleared up by applying ad hoc standards, but the technology still needs universal standards as its use becomes more ubiquitous across government.

The continuous struggle for spectrum is driving many DISA programs and research efforts. “Spectrum is like real estate: It’s in high demand and it’s all about location, location, location,” Gen. Croom says. He describes the competition for spectrum in the commercial world as significant, adding that the Defense Department must be able to describe adequately why it needs certain portions of that spectrum. The department has been successful in transitioning out of spectrum that has been reallocated to commercial wireless services, he notes.

Some new applications already are coming online and are in use. Among the first is maritime domain awareness. Forces now are sharing information about shipping among the Defense Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and other U.S. government agencies. 

“Web 2.0 services are going to change the way information flows,” the general offers. Based on the way the defense community is organized, information flows hierarchically; but information in Web 2.0 does not follow the organizational chain of command. It bypasses that chain and gains speed, and its accuracy is enhanced by being posted and reviewed by others. “We’re seeing speed and agility of information and, I think, better information flowing,” Gen. Croom states.

Many companies are willing to sell engineering services to DISA to provide Web-like NCES services—which are at the core of DISA’s new programs. But Gen. Croom wants to know just how those companies actually are using those services themselves. “I would suggest to those who want to sell to us, ‘if you want to sell to us, show us how you’re using it internally.’ We all have to use [Web 2.0 services] if we want this to be a success—it can’t be just the Defense Department,” he declares.

The full version of this article is published in the May 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers May 1, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.