President's Commentary: DISA Looks at a Future With Multiple Paths

October 1, 2021
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

In this infocentric age of all-domain warfare, DISA truly has a challenging mission and critical role in the defense community. DISA must focus on security and serving customers ranging from the president of the United States to the combatant commanders and the individual warfighters on the tactical edge. DISA is a critical player in the world of joint, all-domain command and control (C2).

Many people don’t understand that DISA is a combat support agency with a huge challenge and mission to buttress the warfighter across cyberspace globally. In many ways, the agency can be likened to a large telecommunications and information service provider, except its role has a level of complexity, coordination and operational management that exceeds most providers.  

But DISA’s mission is not just about being an information carrier or provider. It also is about protecting that information and providing the security that the information requires in today’s complex world. The agency also provides key capabilities that link sensors to shooters, and it deploys globally to support its defense customers. 

DISA serves a vital role in bringing the services together with a joint information technology capability. In the past, the individual services often were in charge of much of their own information systems and networks. Through generations, this created significant interoperability challenges.

Having one joint organization in the lead that can work with the services, the combatant commands and the agencies help ensure joint global management and greater interoperability. This single-source management of the defense information backbone also aids in focusing efforts at the point where information is needed most. DISA provides the connective tissue and the transport from the strategic realm to include the intelligence community, often down to the point of need—the end user, whoever that may be.  

Defense information technology providers are relying on the commercial sector to a large degree as innovations erupt in the marketplace. But commercial operators have not demonstrably shown they are substitutes for DISA. Telecommunications carriers do not have the power to command and control a defense network. They lack the authority and the visibility to operationally direct combatant commanders or services competing for operational information resources. Only a legally authorized and empowered government organization can fill that role.  

Industry and the telecommunications providers are playing a vital role under DISA’s direction in a government-industry relationship. Yet, there must continue to be a strong bond between the agency and industry for DISA to leverage the creativity and investment of industry. DISA must oversee and nurture that bond to ensure a successful government-industry partnership.

Information as a critical enabler for command and control is where DISA is placing its emphasis. The agency is deeply engaged in supporting the development and fielding of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept shepherded by the Joint Staff. DISA is a critical element of JADC2, and the agency will have a significant role in security, C2 and operations. The JADC2 network will depend on speed, latency and flexibility down to the tactical level, and DISA must be a full-time player to help design that network and to enable all of its attributes.

Command and control is job one. JADC2 must be the focus of effort within the Defense Department, and joint priorities must prevail over service needs if success is to ultimately be achieved.  

In DISA’s broad mission, several challenges are key to the agency’s success. One is speed of operation. The issue is, how do you generate and maintain that speed even in the face of adversarial roadblocks? A second challenge is to develop a workforce that is empowered to make decisions in a timely manner. This will require ensuring there is no zero-defect mentality in an environment that will thrive on innovation.  
A third challenge is leveraging innovation in a timely manner to modernize and develop partnerships with industry. This includes establishing the processes that need to take place for this partnership to succeed. The fourth challenge is both obtaining the necessary resources and ridding the system of legacy capabilities that exist only because of individual or organizational patronage. The agency must determine how it can resource what must be done as opposed to what would be nice to have. Vital resources must be applied first and foremost to critical mission threads, and the nice-to-haves added later.

All these threads must be woven together for the defense community to benefit from DISA’s efforts. An effective single organization is essential for pursuing diverse goals, and only DISA can carry out that mission. And, to succeed, it must receive the support necessary from the intelligence community, defense organizations and the services. The whole must benefit from the sum of its parts.

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