Defense messaging outlook: Still a matter of debate

Depending on whom you ask, the Defense Message System is either an invaluable military communications system that has rebounded from previous problems and is on schedule to reach its next milestone, or it is a waste of time and money that does not deliver on promised capabilities.

The answer is probably somewhere in between.

DMS is a $1.6 billion effort to secure Defense Department communications worldwide. John Stenbit, DOD chief information officer and assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence, said he has never conducted a personal review of DMS, but that the program, in general, "looks like most normal programs."

"It doesn't do everything right, but it's not cratering," Stenbit said in an interview last week. He acknowledged the program's troubled past, including persistent rumors that it is behind schedule and technologically obsolete, but he said many of those problems were caused by "difficult bureaucratic negotiations," which often accompany programs that cut across military services and DOD agencies.

Stenbit said DMS is "not the poster child for perfection," but it is progressing normally toward its next milestone, which is replacing the aging Automatic Digital Network (Autodin), slated to be shut down Sept. 30.

DMS messages travel over the Defense Information Systems Network, which distributes voice, video and data messages. The system is designed to provide writer-to-reader message services for classified and top-secret information to DOD users at their desktops and, as needed, to other agencies and contractors.

Most DOD employees have Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook for e-mail. DMS messages look slightly different from Outlook messages because of the strict security parameters. However, users can compose DMS messages on their computers and then use a Fortezza card, which has a cryptographic token for securing messages, to sign and encrypt them, said Diann McCoy, the Defense Information Systems Agency's principal director for applications engineering.

Pentagon officials approved DMS 3.0 Gold, the latest version of the software, for deployment last summer. "That milestone drove a stake in the ground" that showed that the capabilities were in place "to make DMS a good, solid messaging solution," said Verlin Hardin, DISA's DMS program manager.

But the latest version of DMS is not compatible with Microsoft Office XP, according to an Army information management official at Fort Rucker, Ala.

"Part of the problem is DOD pushes the latest and greatest of everything, including XP, and all services can't keep up," said the Army official, who requested anonymity. "Now, we have a major military system and it's not compatible."

DISA officials said in a statement that when DMS 3.0 Gold was fielded, Office XP had not been released and that "early DOD adopters of Office XP will need to load a different e-mail application (Outlook 2000) in the interim" to use DMS.

"Outlook 2002, the Office XP e-mail application, is planned to be available by the first quarter of [fiscal 2004] as part of DMS," according to DISA officials.

Stenbit said the ongoing changes in operating systems throughout DOD are a "continuous problem" when it comes to compatibility with other applications.

Security is the Key

In addition to the operating system snafu, last summer's DMS milestone included some directory and security enhancements required by Stenbit's office, and DISA is now testing and completing them, Hardin said.

But one of the military services has expressed serious reservations about whether those security enhancements can be added before Autodin shuts down.

Air Force officials reviewed both the proposed baseline and accelerated schedules for implementing DMS directory security enhancements, and "while we are trying to keep an open mind to the possibility of achieving this ambitious undertaking...we have numerous questions and concerns that need to be addressed before we can entertain even the possibility of achieving either schedule," wrote Nancy Klein, chief of the information services division at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., in a Feb. 28 e-mail to Hardin.

Neither Klein nor Hardin was available for further comment.

Stenbit said the last DMS meeting he attended focused on enhancing security and determining the best process and schedule for adding new capabilities. He noted that some have asked why DOD continues to spend time and money on DMS in an age of secure instant messaging and chat rooms.

"The military is involved in very, very serious business" and must keep intricate records of orders, deployments and other information, Stenbit said. "The fundamental recordkeeping [system] of DOD has not been updated in a long time and that's what DMS is, the system of record for decisions. It's an important part of how we fiduciarily review our business in the department."

DOD remains committed to DMS because it will serve as a "record system we can count on," he said. "We need a rock-solid record system to record for posterity our actual operations. We're looking forward to DMS doing that."

If DMS is not ready by the time Autodin is scheduled to shut down, Stenbit said he would assess the situation then. "I'll make that decision, but I've not heard anything that would cause me to do that at this time," he said.

McCoy said the only thing that could delay the program from meeting its next milestone would be real-world events, such as a war in Iraq or other operations associated with the global war on terrorism.

Future Holds Challenges

DISA officials refuted any claims that DMS is obsolete technologically, but they did acknowledge that the system has capabilities that could be folded into other services as DOD transforms itself into a network-centric enterprise. The goal is to make data available as quickly as possible to those who need it at the organization or on the battlefield.

McCoy said DISA is conducting tests from now until Autodin is scheduled to be turned off to ensure that DMS' enhanced capabilities, including emergency messaging requirements, are ready to meet DOD users' expectations and needs.

Meanwhile, officials in Stenbit's office and at DISA have identified nine core services that will form the foundation of the net-centric environment, including two that could affect DMS' future: messaging and collaboration, McCoy said. "Functions that DMS provides could be transformed as part of what happens with net-centric services." (See Intercepts for word on an upcoming report from DOD's inspector general on DMS.)

Still, DMS is not going away anytime soon, and Hardin said it might be 10 years or more before the system's features became part of other net-centric services. He added that the decision will ultimately be made by DOD's CIO office, which "gives requirements and then DISA provides the capabilities."

Lockheed Martin Corp. holds the $1.6 billion DMS prime contract. That, however, is only a potential ceiling value. To date, DISA has spent about $550 million on DMS, agency officials said.

Glenn Kurowski, technical director for secure enterprise solutions at Lockheed, said he thinks DMS is one of most tested information technology systems in DOD's history. The greatest challenge is cultural as DOD works to update the 30-year-old processes and procedures that don't reflect DMS' enhanced capabilities.

DISA officials agreed and said the biggest hurdles are overcoming training and cultural issues to ensure that DOD users understand and take advantage of what DMS has to offer.

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