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DISA and JFHQ-DODIN Must Outpace Chinese Cyber Threats, Commander Says

Lt. Gen. Robert J. Skinner said that DOD offices need to maintain their “velocity to win” to meet cyber threats from foreign adversaries.

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Lieutenant General Robert Skinner DISA
Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert J. Skinner, director of Defense information Systems Agency, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on cybersecurity, in Washington, D.C. March 29, 2023. Photo Credit: EJ Hersom/Defense Department

As cyber adversaries like China try to exploit network vulnerabilities, the Defense Department needs to outpace the threat, according to Lt. Gen. Robert Skinner, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and commander of the Joint Force Headquarters- Department of Defense Information Network (JFHQ-DODIN).  

Skinner said at AFCEA TechNet Cyber in Baltimore that his agencies have a “velocity to win.” Skinner warned that adversaries are listening, studying and analyzing JFHQ-DODIN and DISA cybersecurity strategy and searching for vulnerabilities.  

“[China] is actively targeting the critical infrastructure in the United States. There’s an information campaign against the United States. This isn’t just DOD, this is across the board. This is a national threat,” Skinner said “[Chinese-affiliated hackers are] targeting to gain and maintain a physical advantage in the future. That’s a far cry from just more intellectual property.” 

Skinner discussed the four tenets of the DISA Next strategy, which outlines the agency’s goals for the next five years supporting the National Defense Strategy as a combat support agency.  

DISA Next consists of four strategic imperatives: Operate and secure the DISA portion of the DOD Information Network; Support strategic command, control and communications; Optimize the network; and Operationalize data.  

Skinner said that agencies looking to use DISA services will need to to change their processes to fit DISA standards, rather than try and shape DISA services into “wooden shoes” to meet unique requirements.  

“Whenever you add a unique requirement to an enterprise solution, it suboptimizes that enterprise solution,” Skinner told reporters during a media roundtable. “As we lay this framework of cloud, identity, networking applications, it’s really for the greater good. I would offer sometimes the organizations need to change their process–even if it’s just a little bit– to consume it versus saying, ‘We have this unique requirement and we’re going to use that as a reason for not supporting an enterprise capability.’ 

Skinner also emphasized that new technologies like artificial intelligence can play a role in maintaining the department’s advantage, but warned that “jumping to AI for AI’s sake does not help.” 

During the conference, Skinner pointed to applications that AI could leverage like helping to hire and identifying qualified individuals for an open role, sifting through sensor data to reinforce cybersecurity vigilance and better finding documents in refined searches. 

“What problem are we trying to solve and how do we leverage AI to drive that problem? How do we leverage AI to get better balanced space awareness? How do we leverage AI to take our endpoint capabilities and understand where the needle in the haystack is, which means where is the adversary in our campus? Those are things that we need to focus on when we think about AI,” Skinner said.

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