DISA Complements Services' Acquisition Adjustments

May 2012
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is adjusting its acquisition processes to match the military services’ plans to procure and field technology more quickly and to reduce budgets. Though DISA does not provide direct oversight and guidance, it does work with other defense organizations to promote communication between them and the agency and among themselves to ensure future functionality. Here, two soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, participate in the Network Integration Evaluation 12.1.
The evaluations help the Army move systems onto the network faster and more effectively.

Spend less, deploy faster is the goal for technical advancement throughout the U.S. armed forces.

The Defense Information Systems Agency is helping to ensure that military branches can field technology more quickly and less expensively as it simultaneously initiates its own rapid-deployment programs.

For years, members of government and industry have clamored to transfer capability developments to the field at a speedier pace. Recently, action began catching up to talk.

David Bennett, vice component acquisition executive at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), explains that the organization works to stay in synch with where the military at large is going. When dealing with command and control (C2) and other functional capabilities, the agency must guarantee that its offerings work in an integrated fashion with the services’ technologies. “So it’s not a one versus the other arrangement,” Bennett explains. “It’s more along the lines of how do we ensure what each other needs, and how we can deliver a solution that provides a capability both at the joint level and now within the service arena.”

Though DISA does not expressly provide acquisition guidance or oversight to the military branches, the agency does develop its capabilities with input from partners because, Bennett explains, “Typically, all of our capabilities are part of a community solution.” The effort involves creating programs that are complementary and also consistent in terms of using the appropriate standards. Through a variety of forums such as design reviews and working group sessions, DISA and the services try to begin their dialogues up front to ensure that interoperability is addressed at the beginning of projects rather than later in development.

“None of our capabilities are out there on their own,” Bennett says. “They have to tie into the services somewhere just like their services have to come back up to the enterprise level and interact with our capabilities. So while we don’t provide them guidance, there is an incredible amount of teaming that takes place between the agency and the services.”

The different military branches have various plans in place. The U.S. Navy, for example, has a mandate to reduce its information technology budget by 25 percent in the next five years. On the side of expediting capability deployment, the U.S. Army already has initiated the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) and Agile Acquisition Process (SIGNAL Magazine, March 2012, page 47) that revolutionize how soldiers procure and deploy capabilities on their networks.

Rick Cozby, deputy director of the Army’s System of Systems Integration Directorate, explains that the Agile Acquisition Process borrows heavily from the Department of Defense Interoperability Communications Exercise (DICE) and the process DISA uses to manage the Unified Capabilities Approved Products List. The process, through which agency personnel provide regular information and support to vendors and government, has leveraged the DICE construct that provides a venue where candidate technology solutions at various levels of maturity can come for assessment. Developers can make adjustments then return for the next event relatively quickly with the lessons incorporated.

“We have built this into the six-month cycle for the Army’s NIE,” Cozby explains. “Participation in DICE can also lead to joint interoperability certification, which will be leveraged in NIE 12.2 to be conducted in spring 2012. During NIE 12.2, the Army’s Central Technical Support Facility will take advantage of DICE to conduct an Army Interoperability Certification for a next-generation radio.” NIE officials are working with DISA to possibly link their events to DICE because the most recent Sources Sought document—supporting NIE 13.1 that takes place this fall—highlights Army network requirements for joint interoperability.

DISA also is employing pilot programs to ensure it remains in synch with other military organizations and the goal to deliver resources quickly. When agency personnel identify a capability they believe is a potential solution for a certain need, they target a pilot to a specific set of users. When other military groups identify an issue they need to resolve rapidly, “Chances are we can figure out a way to stand up a particular capability to address their problem,” Bennett explains.

Carrying out the work in a pilot fashion helps make certain that a program meets the needs of the customer. In addition, DISA can test the solution, then roll it out quickly, eventually moving it into a bigger software baseline, assuming it is part of a larger product. “We find it to be a pretty effective way to get immediate feedback from the user,” Bennett says. Officials at the agency more quickly learn how customers are using the capabilities and what problems are associated with them, helping them craft the best way to scale the solution to the enterprise.

Through other efforts, DISA is aligning with the military services in trying to move away from big releases into smaller development activity and small software releases targeted to specific issues. “If you were to look at how we did acquisition three years ago, you’d be thinking large, Big-Bang-theory type of software releases,” Bennett says. Following that path, officials tried to deliver all the functionality and product in one large release. “What we’re trying to do, and I think we’re doing it pretty effectively, is to go to smaller, more focused and tailored software releases.”

In some cases, DISA uses the agile development methodology to ensure that as personnel work with smaller capability sets, they tie more closely with the user community. This process ensures that, as efforts move through the development and testing cycles, the users actively are engaged in verifying that the capability meets their requirements. “That goes not only on the development side but also through the testing phase so that we all understand in real time whether or not the capability is on target,” Bennett says.

Timelines expanded in the past because the users became part of the process only during the test phase, after development largely was complete. “So the users were sort of grading homework, and sometimes we passed; sometimes we didn’t,” he explains. Just as the Army aims to receive feedback from soldiers sooner through the NIE process, DISA is integrating users into the development up front and throughout projects. Course adjustments based on user feedback can be made near the beginning of a product’s lifecycle when changes cost less and cause fewer fielding delays.

Smaller projects and programs make it easier to deploy capabilities and to perform the necessary oversight, driving that function to a lower level. Risks associated with small projects are lower than with larger programs, Bennett says. “You can stay focused in terms of what that particular capability need is, and then your oversight is commensurate with the risk associated with that smaller capability,” he explains.

The result is a synergistic effect that ripples through the whole process by reducing the scale and complexity of testing and contracting strategies. “So the questions you have to ask along the way from an oversight perspective get much simpler,” Bennett states. “It’s easier to manage something that you can cleanly put your hands around ... than it is to provide oversight on something so large that it really becomes like an amorphous blob that when you push in on one side it pushes out on the other side. Going smaller is always a better solution if you can do that.”

DISA’s Component Acquisition Executive Office is trying to drive more activities toward smaller, shorter-term acquisition activities. Bennett explains that, “That’s the only way you can really reduce risk and accelerate delivery of a capability ... In my mind, it’s the right way to go.” The office also is focusing more on projects that demonstrate capabilities in a limited fashion before scaling them out as usage increases.

Another method through which DISA is adjusting to meet service branches’ changing needs is teaming with them to determine common requirements and how to parse them out between the joint and service environments. Then, the groups involved can schedule or arrange software releases that complement each other’s development cycles. “We’ve done that a couple of times here recently in the C2 arena,” Bennett says. For example, the Global Command and Control Systems-Joint was developed as a baseline tailored specifically to address near-term service needs. Bennett explains that DISA worked to integrate requirements into a joint baseline that worked in synch with services’ schedules.

For some projects, DISA can enter into a cost-sharing relationship with the military. If service branches identify a need outside of the current schedule, they often are willing to help defray the cost of additional resources beyond what was scheduled for a particular release. “That has worked pretty well as we’ve tried to ensure that we stay tied at the hip, if you will, in terms of delivering the capability,” Bennett explains.

DISA Component Acquisition Executive: www.disa.mil/About/Our-Organization-Structure/CAE
NIE: www.bctmod.army.mil/nie_focus/index.html
Global Command and Control Systems-Joint: www.disa.mil/Services/Command-and-Control/GCCS-J

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.