Under new proposed legislation introduced April 17, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry targeted the Defense Information Systems Agency for elimination as part of a search for efficiencies military-wide. But it remains unclear what would happen to DISA’s missions and functions if the measures were enacted.
As it turns out, that question was never completely answered in previous efficiency-hunting exercises from Pentagon leadership.
“We’ve looked at reorganizing DISA in the past, disestablishing it, but the missions are going to have to be performed somewhere. Part of the problem was there weren’t many details on where they would go,” said retired Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege, who served as DISA director from 2000 to 2005. “So the question has to be, is it going to be value-added and is it going to make sense to do that, and are there savings there that aren’t going to negatively affect national security or combat operations?”
In a briefing with reporters April 18, Thornberry raised questions about how many of DISA’s missions go beyond what’s already being routed to U.S. Cyber Command under Joint Force Headquarters-Department of Defense Information Networks, or JFHQ-DoDIN, which is in charge of defending more than 15,000 military networks.
JFHQ-DoDIN was initially launched in 2015 as part of DISA, but leaders there now report to Cyber Command. The agency was originally created to take over from CYBERCOM on day-to-day network defense responsibilities.
“The end result is to provide unity of command and unity of effort across the entire DoDIN,” Maj. Gen. Robert Skinner, then the DISA chief of staff and soon to become JFHQ-DoDIN deputy commander, said in 2015. “We’re going to take this off Cyber Command’s plate, because there has been this vacuum at the operational level for command and control.”
It appears that returning those functions to CYBERCOM is a key argument for closing DISA, according to Thornberry.
“A big chunk of DISA’s mission is already on the way toward Cyber Command. That’s happening anyway. That’s what causes us to look at this and say, ‘OK, once this moves over, what’s left of DISA, and do we really need a seperate organization to do those remaining functions?,” Thornberry told reporters. “There’s still going to be a whole lot of people at Fort Meade, defending our networks, for example, but as a separate organization do you have to have that as we’re increasing up Cyber Command? I’m not sure.”
Dave Mihelcic, a former CTO at DISA, pointed out that JFHQ-DoDIN and the network defense mission is just a small piece of the DISA pie ― roughly 200 staffers compared to more than 5,000 within DISA writ large. Neither of those numbers includes contractors.
“It’s a significant mission, but it’s a small part of DISA,” he said.
Raduege also pointed out that DISA is an agency where numerous other functions from other agencies have been folded in over time, and the operations include global missions such as commercial satellite communications leasing for all of the military, secure communications for the White House and other senior government leaders, support to the Joint Staff and disaster response communications.
“Over the years, many missions and activities that, even today, are relatively unknown have been transferred to DISA because everyone was looking to increase efficiencies and effectiveness,” Raduege said. “And being a combat support agency, it supports all of the military services. So by putting activities into DISA it’s supporting joint operations.”
It’s unclear how many of DISA’s functions as a combat support agency would be protected from Thornberry’s proposed cuts, from which combat support and intelligence reportedly are exempt.
Still, it’s worth looking at to determine if there are better ways of doing business and maximizing taxpayer dollars, Raduege noted.
“This is not a static world of information systems and cybersecurity and cloud computing – it’s constantly changing and evolving. It’s always good to see if there are better ways of doing it,” he said. “But the missions are very special and they’re very critical … these things have to be protected properly, and national security and support to war fighters is also a very critical element of what we have to do. You can’t shortchange that.”
DISA officials said they do not comment on proposed legislation and referred press inquiries to the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs).