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Web 2.0, Military Style

March 2008
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
The U.S. Air Force Cyberspace Command recently was stood up to ensure the security of the service’s networks. The addition of Web 2.0 technologies into the Air Force toolkit will require the service as well as the armed forces in general to boost their security profile.
Need for security hinders but does not stop services from implementing tools that improve communication.

Exuberance tempered with caution describes the U.S. military’s current outlook about deploying Web 2.0 technologies. The services’ information technology leaders as well as the U.S. Defense Department recognize the multitude of benefits the capabilities offer warfighters from the tactical through the strategic levels. However, concern about the security risks in what could be termed the Wild West of the World Wide Web is currently hampering the services’ ability to take full advantage of promising properties in the Web 2.0 landscape.

Many capabilities the services are currently using are not strictly Web 2.0 technologies. However, they are exploiting collaboration and knowledge-sharing tools that more closely resemble Web 2.0 capabilities than solutions employed in the past. In some cases, the decision to deploy these tools has come from the top; in others, it has been a combination of need and bright young warfighters bringing them into the theater.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, USA, chief information officer/G-6, U.S. Army, believes that Web 2.0 has three aspects: technology, community and social networking, and business processes. “The Army is primarily focused on the technology and the community and social pieces. Right now we’re deploying a lot of tactical systems that take advantage of collaboration tools. We are taking a lot of data—in some cases disparate pieces of information—and combining them to come up with improved intelligence reports for the warfighter,” Gen. Sorenson says. The service also is using Web 2.0 capabilities to exchange knowledge among the various functional and technical communities, he adds.

In current operations, the general points to the Command Post of the Future (CPOF), developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as an example of one tool that allows information to be shared at various echelons in the Army in ways it has not been shared before. Although some problems were encountered when the CPOF was first deployed, it has evolved over time, and soldiers continue to use it. The CPOF allows for individual input to be added by the echelon’s various elements, which brings unanticipated information into the mix and manipulates it to create points of view for the commander. In the past, this was essentially done in his brain, Gen. Sorenson explains.

“The intent right now is to try to extend that to the lower echelon. We’ve got something that we’ve deployed that I would say is past the prototype stage called the Tactical Ground Reporting Network, or TIGERNET. We’re trying to figure out how we take advantage of this capability. It takes the same concepts of the CPOF in terms of providing a picture of the battlefield and going back and capturing data at the platoon level. So you can take sensor data, control data and information from additional sources and bring it together to make sense of what is actually taking place,” the general relates.

The Army also is taking advantage of Web 2.0 technology to form a better picture of the battlefield based on communities of interest. Although he cannot share how this is being done in the tactical environment, Gen. Sorenson reveals that the institutional Army is using the technologies for knowledge management.

For example, the Battle Command Knowledge System, which comprises approximately 100,000 members in roughly 37 different communities, enables soldiers to exchange information and knowledge. The communities are further broken down into two focus areas: professional and functional knowledge management. The professional communities include groups such as command.com and NCO.com. Functional groups concentrate on a specific issue such as improvised explosive devices or transitioning.

“We’ve got this with our Stryker units; we’re beginning to set this up with our other brigade formations as a way for one unit to share information with another unit as well as enable different communities to share information about best practices,” Gen. Sorenson says.

Perhaps the Army’s most visible tool that incorporates Web 2.0 technologies is Army Knowledge Online, or AKO. The general relates that often one person will put a query up on a blog site, and suddenly people from all across particular communities respond. In addition, AKO features Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to facilitate sharing of specific information relative to particular areas of the world, environments or tactical operations. Soldiers can request an RSS feed about a specific topic, and that information is delivered directly to the warfighter.

The Army also is considering how to replicate the Google Mail concept so soldiers can check e-mail from wherever they are located. In addition, the service is digging into Microsoft’s plans to develop clouds of content, the general shares. With this knowledge, the service could design equipment that would allow soldiers to use smaller devices to access information in lieu of carrying massive computers. “You can just have your browser on a thin client, tap into that cloud, get your files, get your e-mail, get your content, whatever you need in order to work. So we are clearly looking at leveraging the same type of concept and capabilities that they’re trying to put in the commercial world into what we have in the military in the future,” Gen. Sorenson says.

Future plans also include tapping into what some call Web 3.0, or the Semantic Web. “For instance, we talked about a vignette where we could ask where is Sgt. Smith? Where is Sgt. Smith in Iraq? Where is Sgt. Smith in Iraq in an M-1 tank? Where is Sgt. Smith in Iraq in an M-1 tank in such and such a unit? We actually did this one time. We walked through the different types of searches, and obviously as you refine that particular description, the search responses diminish. You want to get to a point where the answer that comes back is that Sgt. Smith is at this location; he’s got this much ammunition; and he’s headed this way, for example,” Gen. Sorenson relates. “You almost have a brain outside the brain telling you about your requirements and exactly where you need to go to get what you need.”

Robert Carey, Department of the Navy chief information officer (DON CIO), had the opportunity to view firsthand how sailors and Marines use Web 2.0 technologies in the field. While deployed last year to Fallujah, Iraq, as a member of the naval reserve, he was immediately impressed by the ability of young warfighters to use the technologies they are most comfortable with to accomplish the job. For example, 19-year-old troops can manage 15 different chat rooms about critical command and control elements of conducting the war on one screen. “Now, chat’s not a Web 2.0 technology, but I’ll tell you that previously there would have been a bank of phones and a bunch of people watching the phones. Now, there’s one kid watching in essence multiple chat sessions, and he’s just keeping an eye on them,” Carey shares.

Some blog activity also is taking place. The MarineCorpsCenter for Lessons Learned, a sanctioned site of wiki and blog activity, helps personnel both on the classified and unclassified sides understand warfighters’ activities. Although it is not tactics and doctrine, it is an accounting of information that allows users to search for data about specific subject areas.

 
Senior Master Sgt. Donna Elderedge, USAF, reviews data about the wildfires in Southern California in fall 2007. The U.S. Defense Department rendered aid to fight the fires as part of its Title 10 responsibilities and used traditional communications systems. However, many Los Angeles firefighters relied on blogs and open-source imagery to determine operational plans. 
Carey plans to start a blog on his Web site to spur readers into asking him questions. The DON CIO Web site currently features an “Ask an Expert” link that receives five or six e-mail messages daily. “So my thought is that by putting things out there about what we’re doing and what I’m saying about where I think we need to go, we’ll get more questions and have a more informed audience,” he explains.

Information also is being disseminated through podcasts. The chief of naval operations, the director of the Navy Reserve and Carey all currently employ this tool to send messages out to a broader audience, and its use is likely to grow, he notes.

Carey also intends to begin using wiki technologies to help build policies. Rather than writing a draft, circulating it in the traditional process and waiting months before the policy is complete, he believes he can write a draft policy, publish it and allow the appropriate people to log on and review it or make changes for a specific amount of time. After the review is complete, the policy would be near its final form in a much shorter period of time, Carey states. “So that’s an example of where I think wiki technology can achieve business results with a dramatically reduced cycle time over today’s process,” he states.

Carey emphasizes that a business case must be made for any new technologies before they can be used. “This is moving past what was previously considered high tech, which was a collaboration site. This is advanced collaboration—advanced mass collaboration—to deliver business results,” he says.

The importance of Web 2.0 technologies will increase for a number of reasons as the population of “digital natives” joins the Navy. Whether military or civilian, young people are not only comfortable with these technologies but also expect to use them on the job. With a push to attract more people into the service, it is crucial that the service integrate Web 2.0 into its operation, Carey maintains.

Much like the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force is leveraging Web 2.0 technologies as another tool to put information into warfighters’ hands. A recent survey by the Air Force Communications Agency (AFCA), Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, revealed that 58 percent of its lead command program offices are already using Web 2.0 technologies within their applications and database retrieval programs. However, according to Col. Paul R. Hardy, USAF, director of integration engineering, AFCA, the service’s strategy includes looking for joint solutions. For example, the service also is making use of the Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA) Defense Connect Online.

Col. Hardy relates that while the service does not sanction specific Web 2.0 technologies per se, its architecture integrated product team evaluates and approves commercial products for use in the Air Force enterprise. Several factors are considered, and compliance with Defense Department and Air Force technical standards and architectures is essential.

Currently, the service is using Web 2.0 applications such as RSS; Extensible Markup Language (XML); Asynchronous Java and XML, known as AJAX; Simple Object Access Protocol; Java; .Net; Adobe Flash; and instant messaging. Two of the service’s premier sites are the Air Force Portal and Air Force Knowledge Now (AFKN). Using the portal, an airman can tailor a home page with preferred information. It also provides access to RSS feeds that deliver relevant information based on personal preferences and work area. In addition to this streaming information, airmen have ready access to applications that can be launched directly from the portal, the colonel explains.

Through the Air Force portal, airmen can reach the AFKN site, where they can find expertise from domain specialists and share that knowledge across a community of practice. The AFKN has more than 200,000 registered users and more than 9,000 different communities of interest.

The results from using this asset are impressive. One special operations unit is saving 6,000 hours annually through efficiencies gained by using a community of practice. Another unit has documented $1 million in annual cost savings/reductions through its central processing sites’ community of practice. Recently, the Air Force rolled out a wiki capability within the AFKN that allows users to publish and share content directly with other interested users.

Last summer, the AFCA began looking into Web 3.0 technologies and their application to mission areas. “The promise of Semantic Web technologies is enormous. When we get there, our airmen will get nearly immediate access to contextually and domain-relevant information. Just imagine its impact on AFKN. Instead of an airman perusing tens of thousands of communities of practice to search for information, the Web 3.0 AFKN could rapidly assess the airman’s domain expertise, previous interests, current interests, unit mission and current events. Using this information, the AFKN would produce three or four results vice thousands to the query. Even better, AFKN may use some of the similar information to push the information to the airman even before the question is asked. That is the power of a Semantic Web,” Col. Hardy says.

This is an emerging area of technology and development, and at this point no definitive implementations of Web 3.0 are planned. A key enabler of progress in this area is an enterprisewide service-oriented architecture. This spring, the Air Force plans to deploy its first enterprise application. This will better position the service’s data in an enterprise environment that will be more easily accessible by the Web 3.0 technologies. In addition, the AFCA is working with the Air Force Institute of Technology and the NavalPostgraduateSchool to develop research themes for implementing Web 3.0 to transform its business application enterprise, the colonel reveals.

While not a naysayer, John J. Garing, chief information officer, DISA, is realistic about how the U.S. military can adopt Web 2.0 tools. “I went to a seminar put on by the Tuck School of Business at DartmouthCollege in June, and the theme was ‘Who Deploys and Controls Web 2.0?’ The answer I came away with was ‘nobody and nobody.’ Technologies are just evolving, and it’s like the revolution of the people,” Garing says.

While DISA embraces the idea of open information sharing, the agency is concerned about the security risks. “It’s the irresistible force that demands to share and collaborate, and the immovable object, which is the need to protect what we have. That’s a collision of cultures,” he states. “Our challenge is to figure out how to adapt these tools in some kind of structured fashion as they evolve to make sure that we don’t introduce things into our network we don’t want.”

That said, Garing admits that the idea is for the Defense Department to move to a Web services platform that can enable tools similar to Web 2.0 technologies in a protected environment. One option is to bring them inside a firewall. The department has not yet done this to any great degree, he admits. Right now, the goal is to determine which Web 2.0 technologies are being used and focus on the military’s goals.

Acquisition processes are one hurdle to adopting new technology, Garing adds. “We’ve got to be able to acquire these things in a way that’s different from the way we acquire weapons systems. We have to have the agility to get them quickly, as they pop up,” he explains.

The department has not yet achieved this, but it is moving in that direction, he adds. However, Garing admits that processes can get in the way. “We buy information technology the same way we buy weapons systems. We need to get away from buying applications and systems and buy services and capabilities. We should not care as much about the underlying technology, but rather what effect the service or capability will have,” Garing states.

Garing points to the Los Angeles Fire Department and its use of Web 2.0 technologies during the wildfires last year as an example of how pop-up networks form and benefit operations. The firefighters employed Web 2.0 capabilities to plan missions. “The L.A. Fire Department used a blogging site and Google Earth and then whatever device they had in their hands—an iPhone or whatever they had on hand. Think about what a military unit could do—a platoon or squad—if it was able to go on the network and pull whatever it needed for its particular mission, place and time and mash it together. That’s exactly what we need to be able to do,” Garing states.

Web Resources
U.S. Army Chief Information Officer: www.army.mil/ciog6
Department of the Navy Chief Information Office: www.doncio.navy.mil/Main.aspx
Air Force Communications Agency: http://public.afca.af.mil
Defense Information Systems Agency: www.disa.mil

Services Enlist Corporate 2.0 Expertise

The U.S. Defense Department is not going it alone in its efforts to adopt Web 2.0 technologies. The department and the military services have turned to the commercial sector—where Web 2.0 was born—to help them learn how to take tools that support wide-open communications and fit them into environments that depend on security.

QinetiQ North America (QNA), McLean, Virginia, is one company helping the military accomplish this task. According to Douglas Chabot, director, systems development and integration, enterprise technology business unit, IT Services Group, QNA, the primary focus now is on determining how Web 2.0 technologies can help enhance concept of operations and achieve better efficiencies, better collaboration and data results. To this end, the company is working on technology road maps, Chabot says.

Out of the three largest Web 2.0 technologies—social networking, open source data sets for integration of services and mashups, and rich Internet application technologies—the most promising yet most troublesome is social networking. Users expect to see a reasonable level of horizontal collaboration in and between the agencies through the use of social collaboration. The challenge is to validate data before they are available to circumvent decision making based on incorrect information.

The challenges of inserting Web 2.0 capabilities into the military are many, and security tops the list, Chabot allows. The Defense Department as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and national security agencies need multilevel security. “So on one side you have the free flow of information that’s bounded by the need to protect sources and methods, and on the other side we want to harness the collective knowledge of the community to enhance overall missions. This dilemma pervades our business: how to secure information flow and get these Web 2.0 technologies in these multilevel security environments,” he maintains. This is not necessarily going to hinder the immediate adoption of Web 2.0 technologies; however, it will slow it down, he adds.

“The other problem is the impact on the hierarchy on the agencies that we’re working with. You have chain-of-command problems when you start to share horizontally and the decisions are made in more of a horizontal fashion. That’s why the customers are somewhat reluctant to adopt this,” Chabot says.

Despite the challenges, Chabot explains that the benefits Web 2.0 technologies could bring to the military, and specifically to the intelligence community, are substantial. Currently, the intelligence life cycle follows a tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination process to answer questions. The intelligence community is migrating toward a tasking, processing, posting and using process, and Web 2.0 technologies can enhance that migration, Chabot notes. In theory, this will shorten the time line, but social networking has not yet been applied fully to these cycles, he adds.