DoD Cloud Exchange 2023: Army panel on building distributed IT environment to support combat operations

Cloud computing is not a simple matter when working across thousands of miles of complicated geography, especially when there’s no guaranteed network connecti...

If the Army is called on for large-scale combat operations in the Pacific, it’s going to face a drastically different picture from what the service has been accustomed to over the past few decades. Officials say they’ll need to deal with multiple logistics chains that are thousands of miles long — to formations and staff distributed across vast areas.

Because of the challenging geography and the need to interoperate with many Defense Department components and other nations, the Army will need a highly flexible network and data architecture. It’s why hybrid cloud approaches look so promising.

The Army’s 1st Corps, whose area of responsibility is the Pacific, is in the middle of several pilot efforts to begin figuring out how cloud and new approaches to data could change what kind of information landscape is possible with forces spread across massive geographies.

“In our mission command architecture, we’re starting to uncouple hardware and software — this very tightly-nested server and client infrastructure that we’re largely used to using in proximity. But that’s a challenge in the Pacific,” said Col. Elizabeth “Liz” Casely, 1st Corps’ chief information officer/G6, during a panel discussion for Federal News Network’s DoD Cloud Exchange 2023.

“We’re not talking about just a few hundred meters away. We’re talking thousands of miles, different land masses, oceans. We need a fantastic global wide-area network architecture that allows us to distribute in this way,” she continued. “We’ve also discovered that we don’t have enough technicians or server-client architecture to go around, so that idea leads us to employing tactical cloud — or just cloud architectures that are multihybrid cloud environments.”

Most recently, as part of the annual Cobra Gold Exercise that took place in February and March in Southeast Asia, the Army experimented with a hybrid multicloud approach that used multiple interconnected nodes — some at the corps’ headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and some forward-deployed to divisions and brigades.

Rethinking collaboration, data sharing

Meanwhile, Casely said 1st Corps wants to test approaches to moving the Army’s entire mission command infrastructure to a microservices approach, starting with the glue that ties much of it together: the Command Post Computing Environment.

“We’re focused on the ability to put that in either a hyperscale or on-premise architecture and then connect that with other cloud service providers to include our private cloud,” she said. “And the expectation is that all of the folks that are participating in this exercise will come with their normal server infrastructure and connect into that same environment. We still need to get to validation phase, and we hope to have some things in writing on all the lessons that we’ve learned to provide back to the greater Army enterprise.”

The 1st Corps is working closely with program managers at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), who say that the concepts the corps is trying to prove out in the Pacific appear to, by and large, be applicable to the broader Army.

If cloud technologies are going to become a reality for tactical formations, one of the first problems that needs to be solved is reliable connectivity — and lots of it. Although the Army is building and adopting methods that will let its deployed cloud nodes continue to serve users while they’re disconnected, many day-to-day applications will depend on high-bandwidth, low-latency connections.

Col. Shane Taylor, PEO C3T project manager for tactical networks, said some of the focus areas right now are coming up with waveforms that are resistant to enemy jamming and moving the Army to a transport-agnostic philosophy that includes a wide menu of network connectivity pathways, including commercial ones.

Providing multiple secure options

“I want to be able to give the commanders on the ground as many options as possible, and the biggest change that we’ve seen over the last couple of years is commercially available capabilities are more and more a part of our toolkit today,” he said. “We came from almost everything being an effort that was developed organically within DoD to a rapid abundance of capabilities, especially in the commercial satellite communications market. We just have to keep in mind that the more we give, the more complexity we add, and that if it’s available to us, it’s available to others.”

Taylor said the Army also has a science and technology effort underway to automate what’s known as PACE — the process of selecting primary, alternate, contingency and emergency communication paths. That’s partly to help simplify the jobs of signal officers who will now have a multiplicity of transport options to keep their units connected to the cloud and to each other.

“As we as we add this capability, we absolutely have to keep in mind: How do we reduce the burden for the soldiers at the edge? We need it to be as simple and intuitive as possible,” he said. “There are a lot of efforts underway, and bandwidth virtualization is one of those capabilities.”

Aside from having reliable connectivity through diverse pathways, the Army will also need to make sure its data stays synchronized across all those globally distributed hybrid cloud nodes.

Testing tactical cloud in the wild

Col. Matt Paul, PEO C3T product manager for mission command, said the Army is planning several exercises in the Pacific over the coming months under the banner of a “campaign of learning” that the service began in concert with the Army Data Plan after its last round of Project Convergence demonstrations.

“We’re getting better as we go along, and we’re going to get continuous feedback from the users on what we’re providing,” Paul said. “The two big gaps we’re closing are persistent access to authoritative data sources and making that data available to the users at the edge when they’re in a contested or congested environment and lose their connection. Being able to access data and synchronize data while we’re on the move or at the quick halt is what we’re trying to optimize right now.”

PEO C3T has partnered with the Army Cyber Command, which has a lot of technologies that the service is bringing into the command and control space, he said. “We are enhancing those capabilities for [the Pacific] for the Army data plan,” Paul said. “We’re asking what works, whether it’s scalable to other combatant commands, and to the total Army. That’s what we hope to get out of the next year.”

The outcome of the tests and experiments with cloud and connectivity could have significant implications for not just how the Army manages its tactical IT, but for how 1st Corps itself is organized and managed, Casely said. She said her boss, Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson, the corps’ commanding general, has clearly signaled that topics like data management are commanders’ business.

As one example of how persistent connectivity to distributed formations and smart data management could change things in the future, she offered the concept of a “kill chain:” the process of moving from intelligence-driven identification of battlefield targets to post-battle damage assessments.

“Right now, these processes are occurring inside of folks’ brains, and you’re then trying to display it in a two-dimensional way on a PowerPoint slide that requires a voice-over for folks to understand: here’s what we collected on. Here’s what we targeted. Here’s what we fired. Here’s how well we accomplished our firing mission. And here’s the assessment on what we should do next,” Casely said. “That requires multiple staff sections to come together that are now distributed across the Pacific, so you need collaboration tools in order to exchange information on what’s happening inside your brain.”

Eventually, she said, 1st Corps hopes to move to the sorts of structured data that would enable at least some level of machine-to-machine decision-making within that chain.

“If you don’t have that machine connection to inform that sort of dynamic cycle, then you’re largely left with however long it takes to translate what happened into a flat file, or send it in a chat, for someone to understand what I’m talking about,” she said. “And that is what we’re seeing. We’re seeing how slow that is. We can’t react to things that are happening dynamically as fast as we would like. And data is dropping on the floor: We don’t have a process or a tool or the talent to pull that data into a structured environment and then display it to say, ‘Hey, new information has come in that potentially changes the decision that you just made hours ago.’”

To read or watch other sessions on demand, go to our 2023 DoD Cloud Exchange event page.

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Featured speakers

  • Col. Shane Taylor

    Project Manager, Tactical Network, PEO C3T, Army

  • Col. Elizabeth "Liz" Casely

    Chief Information Officer/G6, 1st Corps, Army

  • Col. Matt Paul

    Project Manager, Mission Command, PEO C3T, Army

  • Jared Serbu

    Deputy Editor, DoD Reporter

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