Making the DoD’s mission partner environment a reality

It’s not easy to share information securely outside your organization. This is the crux of the DoD's policy on Mission Partner Environments (MPE).

Let’s start with a known truth: it’s not easy to share information securely. It’s particularly difficult if you’re sharing outside your organization. This is the crux of the Defense Department’s policy on Mission Partner Environments (MPE). DoD helped define an operating framework enabling command and control and information sharing for planning and executing military operations. It’s a tall order. And while many solutions have been put forth, none have fully addressed the multi-faceted challenge. Perhaps the problem isn’t that the MPE framework is too big and broad, but that it needs to be even bigger. Cost also becomes a factor.

I propose we expand on the MPE framework’s tenets:

The first is that the mission partner environment is only needed across combatant commands. The concept of a mission partner environment was first conceptualized for use with NATO partners, our coalitions in the Middle East and South Asia, and now with partners in the western Pacific, but it can — and should be — used across geographies, services and agencies, as well as for interagency collaboration government. FEMA needs it for natural disasters. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency needs it for infrastructure breaches. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid needs it for new rollouts. Federal law enforcement needs it for state and local cooperation. In short, all government entities could use a better way to exchange information with partners.

Second, MPE is framed for exchanging information. For that, we have several functioning and secure options available. But MPE is really about finding an easier and less costly way of doing business. We need a way to share information and to collaborate so partners can produce joint products together.

And last, it’s assumed that an MPE solution will need to be big and unstructured so it’s flexible enough to meet different needs. I argue that if we are to reduce time to value, we need a solution that already has a structure built in so the partners can come together and begin producing value quickly.

Defining the technical parameters

Another challenge in evaluating MPE solutions is that the technical parameters seem at odds with each other: The MPE needs to be a purpose-built space — and yet it also needs to be flexible enough to accommodate different uses. It needs to offer continuity so institutional knowledge isn’t lost — and yet it needs to be stood up at a moment’s notice. It needs to share information but do so in a way that’s controllable so not everyone can have access to everything. And finally, it needs to be secure enough for controlled information but also deployable however and wherever each partner wants.

With these big demands, it’s no wonder that our joint commands have been forced to stand up costly and cumbersome bilateral networks. Finding a solution that can accomplish all that a true mission environment should demands a new realm.

Creating collaborative spaces virtually

The solution space MPEs need is a virtual one, unconstrained by size or format to bring data, tools and people together. Starting with a template for structure, the space could be set up for shared situational awareness with one or more allies, without needing to stand up a separate network. Because it’s virtual, the workspace allows other outside tools, apps and integrations to be used and for everything to be organized visually, crossing cultural and even language divides.

For a use case such as sharing a maritime picture of everything in the South China Sea, we could invite partners into the workspace with a live feed. We could add files that they could download or open, controlling the permissions associated with each partner or each file, or both. The virtual space would also be a workspace so partners could add shared files, timelines or storyboards. Those assets would be permission-based as well, restricting behaviors as needed to allow for a review of shared intelligence or new inputs or making certain assets view-only.

Controls and security

Traditional sharing sites require different addresses or links for segmentation. The beauty of a virtual solution is that it can be set up with multiple partitions, roles, permissions and restrictions. Those means of governing behavior make virtual spaces flexible for many uses while accommodating sensitive mission partner situations.

The other benefit of a virtual solution is the ability to host in private clouds, on-premises or in air-gapped environments with the highest security requirements

Data sharing versus collaboration

Some MPE solutions have called for a data-centric approach. That mindset is sound, but only if the data is actionable. When we make the distinction between data sharing and true collaboration, we can assemble disparate teams and their content in a shared virtual workspace that serves as a single source of truth. Partners can add and work with images, graphics, videos, documents and data streams as well as audio and video conferencing capabilities to connect teams for meetings, strategy sessions and planning. Critically, the MPE must enable those involved to contribute to shared decision products.

Using MPEs: the real test

The best MPE solution is one that’s field proven. For military operations. Situational awareness. Crisis response. Natural disasters. Search and recovery. Mission planning. Campaign development. Idea generation. Scheduling and production. And dozens of other use cases needed for a variety of government work.

Sharing information and collaborating with ad-hoc task forces and coalitions has always been time consuming, costly and cumbersome. A virtual workspace, like a blank canvas, can be customized for its purpose, leveraging best practices, tools and templates from other applications. Imagine a common operating picture, a file/data sharing capability, and a partitioned collaboration space all in one secure platform.  The mission partner environment is already here, and it’s simpler than you ever imagined.

Norm Litterini is vice president for public sector channels and partners at Bluescape.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories