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DISA touts innovation and importance of partnership at industry conference

by Jennifer Singleton
Office of Strategic Communication and Public Affairs

Fort Meade – Lt. Gen. Robert J. Skinner, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency and commander of the Joint Force Headquarters-Department of Defense Information Network, opened the 2021 AFCEA TechNet Cyber Conference Oct. 27 by announcing changes to DISA’s organizational design. The agency reviewed its structure and processes to determine how to streamline efforts, increase the speed of information flow and achieve best value for mission partners and the warfighter.

“We came up with an organizational structure to reduce complexity and enable greater interaction and collaboration with industry,” said Skinner.

DISA’s simplified organizational structure is designed for unity of effort and speed of information flow, shifting from two centers to four centers, focusing on:

  • Digital Capabilities and Security
  • Hosting and Compute
  • Operations and Infrastructure
  • Enterprise Integration and Innovation

“These lines of efforts are underpinned by two phrases: Velocity of action to win and transparency of understanding,” said Skinner.

DISA’s conference sessions underscored the organization’s alignment to support the new priorities.

Prioritize command and control

“We cannot fail to deliver command and control to our senior leaders and warfighters, strategic to the tactical edge,” Skinner said. “No mission in the department can be successful without the right command and control capabilities.”

“The network that we (DISA) provide, the DISN backbone, is that joint superhighway that enables communications to flow across the department, between the services, the combatant commands, and national level leadership,” said Christopher Barnhurst, DISA’s deputy director. “When we look at that core network, it is actually designated as a weapon system because of the critical missions that it supports. Investing in that transport, making it resilient and survivable, is a key component to prioritizing C2.”

In support of command and control, the Electromagnetic Battle Management program is focused on allowing combatant commands to evaluate courses of action and make the right determinations, said Alan Rosner, a program manager under the Global Electromagnetic Spectrum Information System and Electromagnetic Battle Management.

Drive force readiness through innovation

The Defense Enterprise Office Solution and DOD 365-Joint tenant panel session moderated by Caroline Bean, acting director, Joint Enterprise Services Directorate, outlined details about the DEOS blanket purchase agreement that provides tenant management operations for 13 approved tenants in the Impact Level 5, or unclassified cloud environment. The agreement will offer training, migration support and a standardized experience across the department.

The DEOS Program Management Office is working to expand the catalog of features as cloud capabilities evolve, which will allow DOD to collaborate more seamlessly with industry via Microsoft Teams, Bean said.

Carissa Landymore, acting DEOS program director, provided stats for the DOD365-Joint tenant during a typical duty day, which include 597,000 transmitted chat messages and 18,000 virtual meetings. In the past 180 days, the joint force also engaged in more than 473 million email activities, and leveraged OneDrive to store over 194 terabytes of information.  

“This capability is important for collaboration, particularly in a remote environment,” Bean added.

“In the past 15 months or so during the pandemic, we’ve gone from distributing 2,000 secret phones to 8,000; from 25 secret laptops to over 2,000,” Barnhurst said. “What that tells us is the whole force is distributed, but they’ve got to be able to get the mission done wherever they are. This is an area where DISA is looking to industry to help with our processes and technical solution.”

The Office of Small Business Programs, led by Carlen Capenos, held two sessions focused on helping small business improve their success at obtaining a DISA contract. The team, which ensures enough government contracts go to small business, shared best practices and noted mistakes that small businesses should avoid, including overexaggerating their qualifications and errors in their responses to sources sought notices.

Partnerships with industry are necessary to drive velocity across DISA’s many organizations, said Jason Martin, DISA’s component acquisition executive and director of the Digital Capabilities and Security Center, who moderated the Driving Velocity Through Innovation panel. To be successful, the agency must continue to make investments and take measured risks, all while forming alliances across a range of large and small companies, panelists said.

Martin asked the panel for critical things that government can change to increase velocity. Panelists identified open and honest communication between government and industry, and the articulation of requirements to ensure industry understands the government’s desired outcome.  

Leverage data as a center of gravity

Moving forward, DISA is looking at how to best leverage data across its organizations to increase performance and processes, said Caroline Kuharske, the deputy chief data officer of the newly established Office of the Chief Data Officer.

Kuharske highlighted the many challenges of leveraging data, such as data silos, data accuracy, bridging storage elements together and developing a data-centric minded workforce.

“Success is when we are no longer emailing 37 spreadsheets to each other. When we can combine business and performance data and evolve to make it better,” she said.

“We have enthusiasm and backing from our leadership,” she said, commenting on the future of the Office of the Chief Data Officer. “Leveraging data as an asset is one of the director’s goals for the agency.”

Along with big-data use, the Joint All-Domain Command and Control panel highlighted the importance of partnering with industry to leverage commercial best practices. JADC2 focuses on data to allow warfighters to make faster decisions than potential adversaries by connecting sensors from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Space Force systems into one network to streamline command and control operations.

“A lot of the tenants that we incorporate into the day-to-day Defense Information System Network design are the underpinning of what JADC2 is built on,” said Chris Paczkowski, Transport Services executive, who discussed his team’s work with the DISN. “We strive for high bandwidth, low latency, compute out to the edge, automate the complexity, and high resiliency so it’s never going to fail.”

Achieving overmatch across the electromagnetic spectrum is necessary to achieve a tactical edge, added Christopher Argo, director of Defense Spectrum Organization.

“My team is here to make sure the path is clear so when a commander says launch, the path is clear to do that,” Argo said, as he explained how the electromagnetic spectrum crosses all domains of JADC2.

Rosner highlighted the importance of data and its use within an electromagnetic operational environment.

“We are focused on situational awareness improvements,” Rosner said. “We want to turn capabilities from requirements into release as quickly as possible.”

“The data is all out there. It’s a matter of finding the right data and being able to manipulate and use that data in the way you want to represent it so a user can look at it, understand it and get meaning out if it for the activity or operation they’re trying to support,” Rosner added.

Harmonize cybersecurity and the user experience

“The cybersecurity threat has shifted. It is not based on just protecting the boundary anymore, it’s really about protecting the data,” Barnhurst said. “When we talk about zero trust what we mean is if we assume the adversary has breached our perimeter, the next logical step is to protect our data. What Thunderdome is designed to do is to pivot to that kind of mindset across the enterprise.”

The Thunderdome panel, moderated by Steve Wallace, DISA’s chief technology officer and the director of the Emerging Technology Directorate, elaborated on the program, which will further improve the zero-trust environment and allow DOD to protect its data throughout the growing cloud-based environment.

DISA expects to award the contract for Thunderdome in November.

Thunderdome came about from the need for a system to help get in front of adversaries, said Dr. Angela Landress, chief of the Perimeter Security Division in the Cyber Security and Analytics Directorate.

“The threat changed from a network-based threat to one that is application centric and data centric,” Landress said. “We were looking for a system that would keep pace with industry. We were looking for something modern and relevant.”

Thunderdome extends the perimeter from the user to the edge of the data, Landress added, by using a tool to verify the user and the device, implementing things like condition access as the traffic flows through the network, and putting virtual security containers in front of applications.

The panelists discussed how industry could help. “We need help looking at scale and doing it successfully,” Wallace said. “We need multiple solutions.”

Empower the workforce

“A remote workforce can still successfully execute our mission,” Barnhurst said, noting that DISA headquarters is only at a 20 percent capacity on any given day. “We’re still able to accomplish the mission and we’re doing that because we’ve enabled the force to work remotely. The mission side of that though is by enabling a mobile force, we’re able to execute our mission from anywhere.”

Wallace, during a session on robotic process automation, shared DISA’s emerging work with RPA and described how bots are starting to improve efficiency and decrease employee workloads, adding that the workforce should not worry about their jobs being replaced.

“The reality is the workload is only growing,” Wallace said. “That ability to automate the menial or more consistent tasks the users have removes that from their plate. They were able to accomplish their goals more quickly with similar staff just by employing these automations.”

The two-day 2021 AFCEA TechNet Cyber Conference, held Oct. 27-28 at the Baltimore Convention Center, marked AFCEA’s first in-person conference since 2019.  With nearly 4,000 in-person registrants, the conference was drawing close to pre-pandemic attendance, according to the organizers.

The next AFCEA TechNet Cyber Conference is scheduled for April 26-28, 2022.


Published November 4, 2021



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