Almost 30 years ago, in a background brief called Digitization and the Modern Battlefield, the Association of the U.S. Army asserted that conversion to digital communications would be imperative if the Army is to maintain technological superiority on future battlefields. It went on to point out that the objective is a fully integrated operation where the commander has the information necessary to develop intelligence, synchronize the maneuver of forces and optimize the employment of weapons throughout the width and depth of the battle area.
Much has changed since 1993, including a more nuanced view of enemy capabilities, different approaches to personnel deployment, alternative concepts of battlefield space, and the evolution of more autonomous weaponry. But what remains the same are the importance of digitized information in making military operations more effective, and the value of full system integration. If anything, that objective is more pertinent than ever, as the Defense Department undergoes a long-term, comprehensive digital transformation affecting every aspect of its operations, not just those on the battlefield.
It is an immense undertaking. Over the years, the DoD has acquired digital weapon systems which, at the time, were considered cutting-edge technologies. But today, many of them are obsolete, incompatible, and insecure. Standardizing those information systems to overcome their limitations is not just a huge technical challenge, it is also more costly than annual budget processes permit. And its scope has become much wider. Thirty years ago, digital communication was seen as a method of allowing what would normally have been spoken information to be transmitted and updated automatically to the computer screens of unit commanders.
Today, in addition to person-to-person messaging, digitization involves communication between unmanned devices, frequently involving artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud storage, and big data analysis in combat support roles. Digitization is essential to intelligence gathering, monitoring troop movements, aircraft missions, autonomous weaponry, and more. This doesn’t just apply to the United States; Chinese and Russian military programs are pointed in the same direction.
But the fundamental technology that underpins it all is data — data that is accurate, clean, trustworthy, timely, and secure. You can’t build a skyscraper on a foundation of sand nor can you build a digitally reliant military on a foundation of dirty data. The DoD is keenly aware of these limitations and has been hard at work upgrading its underpinning technologies. However, the funds just aren’t available to meet all of the IT demands that service members require, and its transformation into a fully digital agency still remains on the distant horizon. So various forms of budgetary triage are typically involved in setting spending priorities. But it’s happening, bit by bit.
Strengthening the digital foundations of DoD by modernizing the military’s digital assets can be accomplished by focusing on three fundamental aspects of digitization: Data, cyber and cloud.
The DoD is one of the world’s largest designer, integrator, and consumer of mission type data, collecting, storing, and processing data to gain velocity and range for functional missions and enhance productivity. Entrusting that data is highly cleansed delivers mission value by enabling real time decisions support.
By delivering high quality data structures which interweave disconnected data endpoints, the DoD creates a digital fabric where high quality data is accessible and usable. Our stewardship approach to data management delivers data quality, metadata control, and governance, ensuring the data is managed for optimal results without requiring end users to change tooling or create vendor lock ins. Tooling to develop and integrate data ensures its integrity as it travels from source to destination.
One way this works involves implementing threads to make DoD more efficient and effective at their core missions. Threads are components of tested processes — essentially modules of code which can be strung together and executed concurrently, using shared resources such as memory. It’s not quite a Lego set, but it uses and re-uses bits of software that have been proven effective, largely bypassing the time and money required to create new code from scratch for each application while sharpening focus on outcomes.
By identifying and incorporating cybersecurity requirements early in the modernization and automation process, the DoD can also ensure more cost-efficient, effective, reliable, and consistent data. Non-repudiation, data integrity, end point identification and protection, and encryption methods are just a few of the cybersecurity requirements considered crucial to the success of any automation effort. Modernizing within the full scope of these cybersecurity requirements also significantly reduces reliance on operator knowledge, skill, and interaction, resulting in a decrease in insider threat vectors, both intentional and unintentional, and in cybersecurity incident response activities, including vulnerability identification, detection, and response.
To rapidly scale this automation to meet mission needs, the DoD is rapidly moving to the cloud, which provides the necessary elasticity and storage resources through on-demand computing. Leveraging accredited cloud enterprise services assures that security standards are being met and maintained while easing the heavy burden of maintaining these services independently, freeing valuable resources to focus less on system maintenance and more on high priority mission requirements. The cloud also provides durable, secure, global connectivity to crucial data and functionality from anywhere in the world providing access where and when it is needed, which is critical to carrying out mission objectives.
There are other techniques too for speeding the transformation, lowering the cost of becoming a fully digitized armed force, and operating off a base of reliable data. But what matters most is never losing sight of the objectives for which all of that technology and manpower is being directed — the nation’s defense against threats, regardless of where they originate.