WASHINGTON — Cyber attacks against U.S. military networks that require a security response occur constantly.
Troops rely upon access to increasingly complex streams of data to carry out their missions. The Department of Defense, facing a budget crunch, looks to efficiencies in information technology to help find savings.
These realities are all part of the job of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), an organization that has seen its role change radically coinciding with the rise of complex computer networking.
Founded more than 50 years ago, the agency shoulders responsibility for providing and maintaining the communications networks that serve as the backbone for forward military operations and domestic defense management. DISA works closely with other cybersecurity groups, such as U.S. Cyber Command and the
National Security Agency (NSA), to provide secure networks to the military.
As the importance of networked systems in combat has grown, enemy nations and individuals have more aggressively probed U.S. networks for weakness. This has raised DISA’s profile in Defense Department plans.
But less than 10 years ago, the agency was housed in a scattered collection of office buildings around the Washington area, and its activities were far less visible.
The physical separation from other intelligence agencies created difficult conditions for information sharing, a critical component of network security, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege, former DISA director.
Raduege would, during his years as director from 2000 to 2005, routinely meet with then-NSA Director Michael Hayden. They would alternate meeting at Fort Meade, Md., and in the DISA offices, taking turns driving the distance.
“Just the drive back and forth, sometimes that physical separation does not contribute positively to information sharing,” said Raduege, who serves as the chairman of the Deloitte Center for Cyber Innovation.
But DISA was consolidated as part of the round of base closings in 2005, and the agency moved into a new building at Fort Meade in 2011, a move that is critical for the agency’s future role, Raduege said.
“I know that the people at U.S. Cyber Command are excited about the physical proximity of Cyber Command and DISA,” he said.
“Now with [DISA Director Air Force] Gen. [Ronnie] Hawkins and his senior staff, they’re right on the compound with U.S. Cyber Command and with the National Security Agency.”
That proximity will help the agency overcome major hurdles, Warren Suss, founder of Suss Consulting, said.
“In many ways, the greatest challenge that DISA faces is coordinating effectively with the other players in the Department of Defense,” he said.
While information security and intelligence sharing get the bulk of the public’s attention, the agency’s larger role in providing information assurance will be just as critical to the future of the military, Suss said.
“There’s a tendency to view information assurance in terms of protection from attack, and it really is integrating the protection against attack with the sharing of information in the most effective way to support a mission,” he said.
In that role, DISA has taken on a wide range of responsibilities, from managing data centers to providing the network access for the White House and the president.
DISA also is on the leading edge of battlefield communications, providing the network capability to an increasingly complex web of portable devices carried by the modern fighter.
The agency, originally founded as the Defense Communications Agency in 1960 and renamed in 1991, now works with a long list of groups in protecting networks, from U.S. Cyber Command to each branch’s individual cybersecurity command.
Although U.S. Cyber Command, which is less than two years old, gets most of the headlines, the fact that DISA manages numerous classified and classified networks means that it will continue to play a leading role in cybersecurity efforts.
“At the end of the day, DISA is largely in control of department-wide assets and infrastructure as well as services,” Suss said.
With the budget and cost savings a major topic for the Defense Department, DISA’s contributions to cloud computing efforts and other cost-saving initiatives that could help the department reach its goal of $60 billion in efficiency savings over the next five years are in the spotlight.
“It’s a whole new look, it’s a whole new ballgame, and I know that the [Defense Department chief information officer] looks to DISA as a strong adviser in such matters,” Raduege said.