Points of Partnership: Team of Reservists spawns innovation within Defense Department

Citizen Airman/Oct. 2016 -- The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental aims to keep the Department of Defense at the forefront of technology through a unique partnership with the commercial and academic worlds. However, many may not know that the idea for this new unit came from a group of Air Force Reservists.

Working as members of a group called the Points of Partnership team, the Reservists were faced with the challenge of crafting a solution to the problem of keeping the military’s cyber community equipped to fight. As it worked out, the solution they devised evolved into a much broader application.

The Points of Partnership team, presently based at U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Maryland, was designed to meet organizational requirements for the command by employing civilian expertise in two ways: utilizing talent already within the reserve components and partnering with the National Guard and civilian industries for support. The Points of Partnership concept was first developed and expanded on by retired Col. Bart Gray when he was assigned to USCYBERCOM. 

According to Gray, the initial needs were noticed as early as 2003 when the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (now Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency) was tasked with countering developments in enemy improvised explosive device technology. The key wasn’t keeping up with the enemy technology threat but rather being innovative enough to stay ahead of it.

“In 2008, an OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) organization that controls research and engineering stood up a joint reserve unit to find reservists who were subject-matter experts in technology and get them to use the expertise they had in their civilian capacities for the Department of Defense,” said Gray, who assisted and advised the unit. “I suggested that the people to look for are the guys who have an amazing Rolodex of relationships. They may not know the technology, but they know the people who own or run that technology, and they can give you access to that technology.”

Gray’s recommendation provided a broader sense of the key players who can keep the DOD ready to counter the cyber threat. By expanding to include venture capitalists, bankers, attorneys, management consultants and the like, the unit was able to make essential connections that would bridge a crucial gap between the public and private technology market sectors.

One of the first key relationships Gray established was with Maj. T. Ryan Space, an Air Force officer with the technical expertise and business relationships he was seeking. Like Gray, Space realized that the most advanced technological developments were happening in a civilian market where the DOD could use more presence. 

“The whole of the U.S. government represents only 1 percent of the cyber market,” said Space, citing a need for improvement due to an increase in cyberattacks and threats upon the government. “The U.S. government will never have a leverage in cyber. It’s the commercial market that drives innovation and capabilities that even our adversaries take advantage of. So it’s a little silly to think that the U.S. government shouldn’t (establish a relationship with the commercial cyber market).”

Working with Space and Air Force Reserve fighter pilot then Lt. Col. Bill “Hutch” Hutchison, Gray engineered a public-private partnership on behalf of the Air Staff’s Cyber Operations Directorate. To demonstrate requirements and test the concept, the team participated in the Schriever War Games at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in 2010. Gray cited the event as breaking some of the first ground for his concept. During the war games, more than 150 commercial toolkits were brought in to demonstrate their value in a warfighting scenario.

“The way we proved our concept was putting it in the war games,” Gray said. “We tested the need to have reservists and guardsman working side by side using their civilian skills alongside private-sector companies. The war games and exercises were a great way to practice in a low-threat environment. As a result of that, it was decided that we needed to look harder into the cyber mission set to bring reservists and guardsman and companies together. The Schriever War Games was one of the first times there was a wide-tail exercise that involved cyber on a systematic basis.”

In the analysis that followed, Gray and Space came up with a plan in 2012 that leveraged newly provided National Security Council and DOD policy guidance regarding employment of the reserve components to delve into the resources and skills reservists possessed. One of the many ideas born from this mission analysis was the USCYBERCOM Points of Partnership team. 

“We felt that what the nation needed was a small force of boundary-spanners — guys who move back and forth from a uniform and a suit and speak both languages,” Gray said. “The idea was to take those people who understand the needs of the military, but also are resident in these key centers of gravity, the tech hubs in the U.S., and get them to show up and do what they do for their country. We would make it easy for them to participate. It was just that simple.”

Space took the lead in initially running the Points of Partnership — a team focused on leveraging access to the commercial sector and its civilian cyber expertise. While team members proved themselves in the war games, they initially weren’t well received or understood across the board. In fact, they faced the possibility of being shut down by those who did not understand or approve of their purpose and function.

Ironically, it would be Gray’s own “Rolodex of relationships” that would be the team’s saving grace. He turned to a partnership — at Moffett Federal Airfield, California, near the tech hub gold mine of Silicon Valley — that was a perfect example of the construct Gray initially envisioned.

“We formed a formal partnership with an Air National Guard unit, the 129th Air Rescue Wing in California. The 129th commander, Col. “Bucky” Butow, shared a common vision with us. It just so happened that NASA owns the base on which the 129th is a tenant, and the NASA administrator there was a former boss of mine and Bucky’s,” said Gray, speaking of Pete Worden. “Worden was the NASA Ames administrator and is a retired Air Force general officer.

“During his military service, Pete was a very aggressive officer in highly classified programs charged with providing the Air Force with out-of the-box, innovative technology solutions,” Gray said. “He collected people around him who were like-minded — pushing boundaries, questioning authorities, doing very progressive things. Those are the kinds of guys he had around him. Pete told us in 2013, ‘Whatever I can do under the Space Act that isn’t illegal, I’ll do for you.’ He did everything he could for us at Moffett. That was a key enabler leading to the execution of a formal partnership.”

Once its presence was established in Silicon Valley, the work of the Points of Partnership team garnered the attention of Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers, USCYBERCOM commander. Soon it became clear that the benefits of partnering with the civilian commercial market did not apply solely to the cyber community. According to Gray, the mandate to “go and do” from Rogers directly led to elevation and support from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Afterward, the partnership concept expanded to other fields and became what is today known as DIUx.

“The training program we put together at USCYBERCOM is now going to be the training program at DIUx,” Gray said. “The pipeline of reservists initially hired in support of DIUx is the pipeline our team originated at U.S. Cyber Command. Our team’s fingerprints are everywhere to be seen on this construct from CONOPs (concepts of operations) to people to MOAs (memorandums of association).”

The Points of Partnership team still exists independently of DIUx, although the two inherently work closely together. Today, Points of Partnership is led by Lt. Col. Mike McGinley, another key player who helped Gray and Space keep the team alive. McGinley, a practicing cyber law attorney in his professional capacity who took over from Space, said he still faces many of the same challenges in keeping the team going.

“In 2014, I took over from Ryan (Space). He had done a fantastic job of getting everything squared away, but it was still at the point that people were saying, ‘Hey, what do you guys do?’ People still didn’t understand,” McGinley said. “That was part of one of our drives.

“We had the Points of Partnership team put together the first-ever reserve cyber summit that brought together 50 general and flag officers from across all reserve component elements. After that, there started to be a change coming above the radar saying, ‘Here is what we do.’ We repeated with consistent messaging and marketing until people understood. We are leveraging reservists for their highest and best use – doing what they do for a living, where they live.”

Despite these challenges, McGinley remains confident that both Points of Partnership and DIUx have established a better understanding with the DOD. He said the key to sustainability for the two endeavors is keeping and improving the DOD’s relationship with private technological sectors.

“If we want to maintain a presence (in the private sector), we have to show our value,” McGinley said. “What I’ve always found is if you are succeeding at the mission, the rest takes care of itself. My ultimate goal is making sure we produce tangible results for the command.”

It is these tangible results that will be the key to keeping the Points of Partnership team and DIUx around. McGinley believes both have the internal support needed to continue and show the long-term potential for good they offer to the DOD.

“The PoP team really is a success story,” he said. “We want to really affect change in a way that’s not just exciting but also gives all our reservists a chance to participate meaningfully. We have tremendous momentum. We have a great team. We’re thankful to have the full support of the Air Force Reserve Command leadership. We couldn’t do it without them. We have a lot of challenges still ahead, but I’m very optimistic about where we are headed.”

DIUx is a year-long experiment. After a year, there will be a results analysis. The next defense secretary will make the decision to either remove the “x” and make the organization a full-fledged Defense Innovation Unit or end it. The Points of Partnership team could face a similar decision, depending on the needs of the DOD. Nonetheless, Space remains optimistic about the good both can do.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen out in the valley (Silicon Valley) is a bigger interest level in academia and technology in solving DOD problems,” Space said. “Students, companies and mentors across the DOD are involved in an academic environment hacking these problems apart. Sometimes these spin out commercially funded companies that are aimed at tackling these DOD problems. I think that’s a win — creating a dialogue within the ecosystem that says, ‘We want to solve DOD problems.’”

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