How to win on tomorrow’s interconnected battlefields

With the U.S. national security plan highlighting the need for both information dominance and protection, the Department of Defense is considering a range of programs to sharpen its competitive edge against state and non-state actors. These plans include modernizing military networks to ensure more effective communications between warfighters and allies in the harshest of environments, and recruiting the specialized talent required for battlefield domination.

To begin, the DoD must bridge the gap between its ambitious vision and the capabilities of current military networks. The Army’s ESB-E, for example, seeks to replace the 15-year-old WIN-T tactical network with a modern, scalable and adaptable network to ensure field troops are constantly connected with each other and their allied force counterparts.

With malicious hacking from domestic and foreign enemies increasing in intensity, cybersecurity needs to be at the forefront of these plans. Programs like ESB-E are designed to provide widescale communications in hostile territory. It will be incumbent on warfighters in the field to monitor, manage, and secure the network to fulfill the “protection” portion of the DoD’s strategy.

Let’s look at how the DoD can strengthen its security posture by protecting critical systems, improving compliance, and enhancing the performance of its networks, applications, and staff.

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Delivering an edge to troops in the field

In recent years, success on the battlefield has become increasingly dependent on the use of connected devices and the application of technologies such as artificial intelligence. Through the internet of battlefield things (IoBT), as the Army Research Laboratory calls it, U.S. troops are gleaning more intelligence from cloud and edge computing-based sensors, wearables, cameras, robotics and field equipment.

The DoD is investing heavily in IoBT systems to provide warfighters with a strategic and tactical advantage. The Navy, for example, is planning to link its global fleet through connected platforms while the Army intends to network soldiers and their weapons systems. Meanwhile, all military departments want to ensure field troops can use satellite communications technologies as easily and naturally as they use smartphones in their personal lives.

Despite its many benefits, the increased use of networking and communications technologies at the edge comes at a cost: It vastly expands potential attack surfaces. The more connection points there are, the greater the threat of exposure. To protect themselves, armed forces must be prepared to monitor, maintain, and secure communications systems significantly different and more complex than traditional IT networks.

Matching training and development plans to new battlefield requirements

As communications networks evolve from the legacy systems in place for years, the delineation between soldiers and system administrators is beginning to blur. To manage these cultural and technological changes, the DoD needs to rethink its approach to training. First, it should ensure troops understand they have a new role to play; they must now take both personal and collective responsibility for protecting the network instead of leaving it to someone else. Second, the DoD must ensure field troops have the knowledge and skills to monitor and maintain the different battlefield systems and to identify and address unfolding problems to ensure the systems’ security and continuity.

That’s not to say all traditional teachings should be scrapped. Many current best practices remain applicable in this new environment. For example, data and traffic will still need to be encrypted; soldiers should obtain fellow troops’ communications tools if they’re compromised—just as they would with any other device harboring sensitive information or access points—and clear network visibility is still required to pinpoint and resolve any anomalies.

Increasing bench strength where it counts

Having the right personnel to support the development, rollout and ongoing management of next-generation communications systems is another priority for the DoD.

Although the armed forces boast many talented individuals with network and systems administration experience, they lack bench strength in some areas of emerging importance. These include cybersecurity, where the small number of experts retained at present are being rapidly lured away by the private sector. The DoD must act urgently to close this gap.

The White House’s National Cyber Strategy offers potentially helpful, timely guidance, including the reskilling of workers from other disciplines, recruitment of new talent, and adherence to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Framework. NICE provides a standardized approach for identifying, hiring, developing, and retaining a talented cybersecurity workforce. The U.S. government is also working to promote and magnify excellence by highlighting the contributions of cybersecurity educators and cybersecurity professionals.

Conclusion

American dominance of air, land, sea and cyberspace rests on two major imperatives for the DoD. The first is the creation of secure, interconnected battlefield systems from which U.S. forces can enjoy a strategic and tactical advantage. The second is the recruitment of skilled talent to monitor, manage, and protect the growing expanse of systems required to protect troops against determined adversaries. Both are critical for the future of U.S. defense systems.

Brandon Shopp is vice president of product strategy at SolarWinds.