DISA Drives Deeper Into the Battlespace

May 2008
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Two U.S. Air Force airmen control aircraft flying cover for ground operations in Iraq. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is working to extend its joint network capabilities to the tactical edge.
Information agency aims to move new capabilities to the tactical edge.

Not content with being a global service provider, the Defense Information Systems Agency 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, the Defense Information Systems Agency (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. We don’t have to think about what’s out there—we already know. Now the trick is how to get it onto government networks and into government capabilities.”

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.

The agency is moving ahead with its computing and storage services, and it continues to seek to provide these services at the lowest cost possible. Gen. Croom allows that DISA has increased capability and reduced personnel and operational costs over the years. It strives to be the provider of choice for its defense customers, which requires that it continually upgrade its capabilities.

“The commercial world is the model for our providing computing services,” he says. “They [in industry] are our benchmark for computing service in terms of price.”

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 SMEPED. Similar to a BlackBerry, SMEPED 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.

For the JTF-GNO, directing network operations will require new tools, the general points out. He is looking for machine-to-machine interfaces that would give JTF-GNO the speed and agility to defend against the new types of intrusions that threaten the network. These tools would move the human out of the loop and automate network defense. The JTF-GNO also is striving to provide a global common operational picture (COP) to all of its partners—the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps along with more than 50 agencies.

Scans against the defense network run in the millions, the general reports. Defending the network is a risk management effort, and the JTF-GNO achieves this in a number of ways. The organization is defending the network “moderately well,” he offers, but it also has great room for improvement.

With more than 5 million users, the network touches 88 nations worldwide. The JTF-GNO has “a lot of work to do” to modernize capabilities both for managing the network and for defending it, Gen. Croom states.

The overwhelming majority of military satellite communications traffic travels over commercial satellites. New military satellite programs underway aim to shift that percentage more toward military carriers. The wideband global satellite communications system, or WGS, will replace the venerable defense satellite communications system (DSCS). One WGS satellite already is in orbit, and more are slated for launch.

But Gen. Croom does not see DISA abandoning commercial satellite service as more military satellites reach orbit. Defense requirements far outweigh the agency’s ability to provide services from military sources only.

Under the current acquisition system, a user approaches DISA, which has established a competitive bid system among three vendors. The agency offers commercial satellite services at 25 percent below market price, the general states. Process improvements have dropped service times from several months to 21 days or less, and the agency can respond to emergency requirements within four hours.

A U.S. Marine uses a laptop to establish broadband connectivity in Iraq. New military communications satellites are headed into orbit, but DISA still will be relying heavily on commercial orbiters for a significant amount of defense communications traffic.
DISA already is preparing for the next contract for commercial satellite services. It has met with commercial partners individually to seek advice on establishing future relationships between the agency and contractors. “You can bet your life we’re going to still keep competition in there because it has driven down price,” the general says. “We’re going to look at even faster response times for our users; so we’re still after best service, agility in that service, the ability to change that service, and we want to do it with speed at less cost.”

These contracts will add some new criteria for delivery of satellite services. Gen. Croom lists Joint Staff-endorsed capabilities such as network operations flexibility, optimization capacity protection and operational security portability as one set of criteria. Others include portability, responsiveness, coverage and interoperability.

The new satellite contracts will aim to take advantage of future industry and user trends. These contracts will address increased demand for managed and/or shared services, increased support for protection and network operations capabilities and increased support for Defense Department enterprise services.

The agency may look at commercial satellites connecting through DISA teleports, the general adds. IP services also will be a factor.

Iridium is providing enhanced mobile satellite service that includes ad hoc netted capability similar to ultrahigh frequency (UHF). Gen. Croom notes that this capability is not well known, and DISA is trying to promote it among its users. Iridium also offers a short-burst data service that can support Blue Force Tracking by providing data updates.

But satellites are not the only key medium. The agency seeks to balance the use of commercial satellites, military satellites and terrestrial assets such as optical fiber. The majority of communications travels over terrestrial fiber, the general states, as the amount of fiber bandwidth available is huge and costs are significantly less than those of satellites. This triad approach provides better survivability and reliability, he offers, adding that asset selection largely may depend on the user’s particular need.

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.

“Our deployed forces in harm’s way, who have a requirement for bandwidth to stay safe, that is the driving force—and we all feel the urgency to get these services forward,” the general contends.

This urgency reaches down into the agency’s largest programs, he continues. These services-oriented programs, whether collaboration tools or security services, must work both at the core and at the tactical edge.

Connectivity in Southwest Asia will improve. The general describes how a new integrated waveform will reside on UHF communications, which is in extremely high demand, particularly for networked communications. This new waveform will triple the number of users on the existing system when it is deployed in August. Currently, five users on a 25-kilohertz channel each use 5 kilohertz of bandwidth, which reduces the quality of voice communications substantially. With the new waveform, 14 people will be able to share that 25-kilohertz channel, and their voice quality will be significantly better than on the existing five-shared channel.

Another new system will allow deployed forces to take a very-small-aperture terminal (VSAT) system into a remote area for broad communications. That VSAT system would enable a WiMax capability covering a large area, which would be exploited by those deployed forces.

“We are getting more bandwidth forward, and we are now starting to extend that bandwidth by other wireless means,” Gen. Croom states.

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.

One research effort focuses on domestic U.S. needs. A cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) aims at developing a new disaster relief capability for emergency communications. When a major event such as Hurricane Katrina knocks out cell phone service, this new technology would provide a cell-phone-type capability from satellites. Emergency responders could use their cell phones seamlessly as if the cell towers were still operating, but their connectivity would be enabled by orbital links.

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.

“It’s all about partnership and how we share a limited resource amongst the key players within our nation,” Gen. Croom declares.

To manage spectrum, DISA needs new tools, the general says. One program, the Global Electromagnetic Spectrum Information System (GEMSIS), is “not as defined as we’d like,” he admits, but the agency continues to pursue that path to modernization. Meanwhile, DISA has been working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop new technologies that manage spectrum within a radio (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2008).

The NCES effort will bring basic Web 2.0 services to the defense community. It includes collaboration tools, which are available now, and a portal with a single sign-on that has been adopted from the Army. It also will include a security service that teams an individual’s identity with attributes that determine database access rights. It will offer machine-to-machine type alerts for background capabilities. “The very fundamentals of Web 2.0 will be in the foundation of NCES,” Gen. Croom says.

Some 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.

Groups may have to reconsider how they are organized, he continues. Flatter organizations may be better than hierarchical ones to take advantage of faster and more accurate information.

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.

This applies to many areas. Not only can Web-like services improve C2, they also can improve the way the agency in-processes its people, the general points out. Many of these applications can be gleaned from commercial uses, and he wants to tap those ideas from the private sector.

For service-oriented architecture, DISA is building modules of capability under C2, but Gen. Croom believes that industry can build its own C2 modules to offer for government testing.

Web Resource
DISA: www.disa.mil

Thirty Months, Five Points of Strategy
When he assumed command of DISA two and a half years ago, Gen. Croom selected five major thoughts as his strategy. First among these is that information is the important element of focus, not its enablers or systems. Information is the United States’ greatest weapon system, and when it is not the centerpiece of action, then solutions do not work.

The second point is to move information to the tactical edge, which follows the natural extension of the network as technologies permit. The third is an emphasis on operational excellence. DISA is bringing out new programs that must work as they are implemented, so the agency is beefing up its metrics on these and existing essential systems.

The fourth point is speed in acquisition. Gen. Croom emphasizes that DISA cannot afford to acquire defense information technology at the slow rate typical of military platforms. The agency has changed many elements from requirements to delivery to speed capabilities to the warfighter.

The fifth point is best value. DISA is a $7.6 billion agency, and 80 percent of its money comes from its customers. The general relates that DISA has hired Deloitte & Touche to set its books to ensure cost visibility that can be shared with a customer. The company has been at work for almost two years, and the agency has submitted part of its books to the Defense Department Inspector General’s office for a six-month accounting inspection.

Gen. Croom expects DISA to receive a high grade from this inspection, but he adds that the agency will continue to modernize its books. “Having good books will enable better program decisions and better billing, and our customers will have more faith that what we tell them is true and that we have support for that truth,” he emphasizes.

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