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  • The Defense Information Systems Agency’s Cyberspace Operations Directorate is relying on a so-called battle drill concept, pulling in teams of experts to troubleshoot and fix hard-to-solve communications challenges. Credit: Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff
     The Defense Information Systems Agency’s Cyberspace Operations Directorate is relying on a so-called battle drill concept, pulling in teams of experts to troubleshoot and fix hard-to-solve communications challenges. Credit: Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff

Answering the Battle Drill Call

The Cyber Edge
May 18, 2020
By Kimberly Underwood
E-mail About the Author

A DISA directorate uses an innovative method to confront information challenges across the globe.


The Cyberspace Operations Directorate within the Defense Information Systems Agency is employing a so-called battle drill concept to ensure communications and data are available to the combatant commanders, senior leaders or other key officials when required. The directorate is responsible for the global flow of information, especially in support of the U.S. military’s 11 combatant commands and other key Defense Department operations. The battle drill model collectively pulls together the resources needed to tackle complex communication and data issues.

The directorate is relying on the process to quickly alleviate problems its customers are encountering to restore the critical flow of information, explains Joseph Wassel, director, DISA’s Cyberspace Operations. In addition to supporting the combatant commands, the directorate oversees the 24/7 Joint Operations Center at DISA headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, as well as DISA’s Global Operations at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.  

“You can imagine that when [the] flow [of information] stops there’s great concern,” Wassel says. “In the business we’re in, whether we’re flying UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] or we’re working with the Missile Defense Agency or supporting nuclear command control communications or senior leadership communications, this is a high stakes game. We are very sensitive to the needs of our customers at all echelons, and when we have a flow interruption, we really can’t waste a lot of time. We’ve got to really get back in business as soon as we can.”

The Cyberspace Operation’s battle drill concept pulls inspiration from the medical community and how one physician, Lisa Sanders, works to rapidly diagnose complex cases through a team of collaborators. “Quite frankly, the concept came from a real-life doctor that is the engine behind the [television] show House,” Wassel confirms. “She would find these obscure diseases from around the world, and then she would articulate the medical issue and then she would send it out across the globe. People would come in with all of this information and solve these obscure difficult medical issues that weren’t being solved in the normal medical field. And from that, the idea came that maybe we should include more people in troubleshooting. Maybe we should include another ops center within DISA. Maybe we should bring in the people that developed the program to find out how it behaves. And so, it really is a wonderful capability.”

As such, Wassel has created a flexible team of savvy diagnosticians—not medical, but cyber, communication, network and computer experts—to help investigate any complex operational issues that arise.

“So, what we’ve done is we’ve established a conference bridge that we call a battle drill with the customer that is in need,” he says. “And then we look across the agency into different areas and align [personnel and resources], even people that don’t work for our particular Cyberspace Operations Directorate, to come to the battle drill with their skills, with their information, with data with helping strategies, so that we can laser-focus on the problem, and get at it within seconds and minutes and try and solve the problem.”

The Cyberspace Operations Directorate began testing out the concept through some pilot projects, and presently has put in place “a full-blown capability” that it applies to critical customers and needs, notes Wassel, who has been director for roughly a year, managing about 2,600 personnel.

“Within the first year here, we’ve developed these battle drills where, for a momentary problem, we actually align the entire agency to surge to fix it,” he notes. “When we find out about an issue, we want to align all the operational capabilities of the agency and surge to fix that problem and then get back to a normal state of play.”

Part of that adroit ability depends on an understanding of the Defense Information Systems Network—or DISN, the Defense Department’s enterprise communications network housed at Scott, Wassel says. The directorate manages and helps protect the critical links and nodes that make up the DISN.

“One of our axioms is that we want to know sooner about what’s happening on the network,” Wassel emphasizes. “We want to be able to see the network and understand it and how it’s going to operate, because ultimately our business is about flow. It’s the flow of data dynamically to the customer and back from the customer, queries out into the world to try and get information and bring it in.”

The DISN has to effectively carry the critical information needed to support the department’s globally integrated operations. “Sometimes we have concerns about the flow,” the director acknowledges. “We might have a cable cut due to an anchor pull on an undersea cable. We would find out about that and how it is something that impacts the flow [of information]. Now, ultimately, with a resilient network, we can work through it, but we want to have as much resiliency as possible. So, we want to understand the impact to mission when the flow is impacted. We can see that in our command net, which allows us to see the network and then see where our customers are and what their needs are and then understand the severity of a flow implication. And then, ultimately, we want to surge to fix any issues we have.”

Given what is at stake, Wassel stresses that the directorate has to even go beyond running battle drills to stay out ahead of information concerns. “What I’ve done with critical customers is now we have a daily sync,” he notes. “I call it getting in front of the battle drill and understanding what their day-to-day operations are going to look like. We don’t really want to wait for the battle drill. I want to understand their needs ahead of time.”

He admits that this daily engagement will not eliminate the need to conduct battle drills, but it does help build relationships with DISA’s customers. “It won’t prevent all battle drills,” Wassel shares. “But what is even better is that when you get into the battle drill, you’ve got the relationship right and you know what their needs are.”

Having DISA personnel located at the field commands and offices also helps inform and shape the information capabilities that the Cyberspace Operations Directorate provides. “I’ve got an incredible team of full colonels and Navy captains that command those field offices and field commands,” he explains. “I really feel like we’re organized for success at the combatant command level, with a DISA field office at every combatant command across the globe. They kind of act as the eyes and ears of DISA to the commands, because, ultimately, we are a combat support agency and we fight wars at the combatant command level. We … forward our services and open the dialogue back and forth as new technologies and new capabilities come along. It’s kind of a microcosm of headquarters DISA spread across the globe.”

Wassel considers the directorate and DISA having to operate at the highest level—at an Olympic level—as far as how they need to provide information to the United States’ most senior officials and leaders.

“I’m a career communicator, an Air Force officer doing communications in active duty and reserve,” he says. “Years ago, I got the opportunity to become the military assistant to the secretary of defense for communications. And that was a real game changer for me as I went on this incredible journey with Secretaries Cohen, Rumsfeld and Gates as their single focal point for communications around the world for about 10 years of my career. But ultimately, coming to DISA, it is kind of what I would call the mothership for career communicators. For me quite frankly to be a senior executive at DISA, it’s like being on the Olympic team. I’m here managing and leading Cyberspace Operations to make sure that those folks like me in the past have confidence in the network. That’s really the day-to-day job, to make sure that the customers, the warfighters, the senior decision makers that depend upon the network have the confidence that it is going to be ready and available and secure for them every single day. And I don’t do that job all by myself, not even within Cyberspace Operations, but that certainly is how we start each day.”

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