DISA could take on bigger IT role at Defense

In Secretary Gates' reform plans, the information agency will assume daily IT operations and the department's chief information officer, but federal IT experts disagree whether the move will strengthen the CIO as intended.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has carved out what appears to be a key -- if still not fully defined -- role for the Defense Information Systems Agency in his ambitious plan to consolidate the management of the Defense Department's information technology management and infrastructure, said analysts who closely follow federal information technology policy.

Gates announced on Monday sweeping reforms in how the Pentagon will conduct business in an effort to save $100 billion during the next five years. The changes include eliminating the policymaking Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense Networks and Information Integration, but appear to strengthen the role of the chief information officer, some analysts said.

In a Pentagon press briefing on Monday Gates said a decentralized IT infrastructure at Defense deprived the department of economies of scale. He directed the department to consolidate its IT assets to achieve "savings in acquisition, sustainment and manpower costs."

"This action will allow the increased use by the department of common functions and improve our ability to defend Defense networks against growing cyber threats," Gates said.

Defense requested $36.5 billion in fiscal 2011 for IT, a 6.4 percent increase from its fiscal 2010 budget of $34.3 billion.

To oversee IT, Gates said he plans to stand up a stronger Office of the Chief Information Officer, "and under its umbrella, responsibility for daily operations will be assigned to the Defense Information Systems Agency."

"A refashioned Defense Information Systems Agency will perform the department's CIO function," noted a Pentagon press release issued on Monday.

In a briefing after Gates' press conference, Christine Fox, director of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, made it clear the Pentagon plans to merge its CIO function with DISA. In slides from the her presentation, Fox said Defense plans to move the CIO to DISA and combine command-and-control functions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Joint Forces Command, which is slated for dissolution; and ASD/NII into the new CIO/DISA organization.

Under the leadership of its director, Army Lt. Gen. Carroll Pollett, DISA is well-positioned to take on a larger role in management of Defense-wide IT systems, said John Weiler, executive director of the Interoperabilty Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va., that focuses on development of federal enterprise information systems.

John Garing, a consultant with Suss Consulting who retired as DISA's chief information officer earlier this year, said the agency has a proven track record in consolidating assets, reducing the number of data centers it operates from 50 to about 14. DISA also has experience in cloud computing projects and could develop a virtual cloud to serve all Defense. He also said the Pentagon needs to further clarify and define the roles of DISA and the CIO.

Warren Suss, head of the consulting firm, said he believed Gates has "broadly expanded DISA's operational role. . . . This is a huge change for DISA."

John Grimes, the last person to hold the Defense CIO position, having retired in April 2009, said he was still figuring out the new Defense IT policy, which Gates only broadly outlined.

Defense needs a policy leader to manage spectrum negotiations during the next several months, Grimes said. Defense is trying to protect encroachment on its vital radio frequencies by the Federal Communications Commission, which has proposed allocating spectrum that Defense uses for space systems and infantry radios to commercial carriers.

Grimes said he believed the Pentagon did not conduct a thorough analysis of the consequences of shutting down ASD/NII, which he said could serve as an independent check on IT acquisitions that Gates said the central Defense acquisition, technology and logistics organization will handle.

Phil Bond, president and chief executive officer of TechAmerica, a technology industry trade group in Washington, said eliminating ASD/NII and the command-and-control functions now performed by the Joint Staff will result in a weaker, not stronger, Defense CIO.