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  • A U.S. Army infantryman radios his situation report during an exercise. Future defense communications systems are likely to be smaller and more comprehensive as the military and industry collaborate on new information technology capabilities that help the warfighter in the battlespace. Credit: Capt. Lindsay Roman, USA
     A U.S. Army infantryman radios his situation report during an exercise. Future defense communications systems are likely to be smaller and more comprehensive as the military and industry collaborate on new information technology capabilities that help the warfighter in the battlespace. Credit: Capt. Lindsay Roman, USA

As Information Grows, Military Hardware Shrinks

The Cyber Edge
December 1, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

So will the role of humans in operating future systems.

Speed will be the order of the day for military information systems as new technologies incorporate breakthrough innovations. Hardware also will transform as capabilities grow in influence. But above all, the entire defense information system community is undergoing major cultural changes spawned by a combination of innovation and disease.

One big change coming to the U.S. military is that computing platforms will become smaller and smaller, says Tony Montemarano, the outgoing executive deputy director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and current special assistant to the director. Laptops will give way to tablets and, ultimately, cellphones. The soldiers of the future are more interested today in devices that are small and mobile, and this comes just as technology is moving in that direction. In the future, these warfighters will be carrying more information technology into the battlefield, so they will want hardware that is smaller and lighter.

Consequently, the biggest issue for these technologies will be security, Montemarano says. Security is a problem with people not complying with existing rules, and future warfighters will expect security to be transparent. “That’s what’s going to influence us as we go forward—the security and the fact that we are dealing with endpoints that are going to have to be protected,” he states.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for information technology use, Montemarano offers. “People realize that ‘I can do this at home or over a mobile device,’” he says. Throw in video teleconferences, and people increasingly are able to do their jobs remotely. “People in the federal space are really going to embrace technology. We are really going to be changing the way we do [things] and adapt.”

He continues that government organizations are good at taking new technology and adapting it to old business processes. But the new approach is to take technology and exploit it in new ways that depart from the past. “We are going to adapt to a new way of doing business—for the Defense Department and the federal government as a whole, but specifically defense—and become more flexible and enter the 21st century from an [information technology] perspective, and realize there is so much that can be achieved.”

That will entail changing the government/military mindset, Montemarano allows. “Our mindset is very physical and kinetic,” he observes. “We have to change it into a cyber mindset and see what you can do and how much you can accomplish.” He adds that DISA has been “firing on all cylinders” as it adapted to the new reality imposed by the pandemic. One advantage was that it now is easier to move from one meeting to another, which has helped improve productivity.

With cyber technology advances coming at an accelerating rate, the defense community must ally with industry to benefit from that innovation. Government doesn’t have the engineers to do it alone, he adds. The defense community has lived in a protected environment with firewalls and various security devices, but that model no longer works. “You can’t even rely on firewalls anymore … they’re porous, whether someone set up an extra link or somehow someone hacked through it.

“The bottom line is, you can’t rely on it,” he continues. “You need to rely on what the commercial clouds give us, in terms of platform services that we would have to develop on the inside and, again, we don’t have the time and talent necessary to develop robust environments that we need for the warfighter.

“The commercial environment can, and we need to rely on that as best we can—at least at the unclassified level,” he declares. He adds that the secret level is not yet ready for commercial involvement, and defense must continue to maintain barriers there. Yet, that does not presume firm barriers between government and industry.

“This business [model] where we can operate separately from industry, separate from the commercial environment, is no longer viable,” Montemarano posits. The military must determine how to embrace the commercial cloud, for example, because it cannot operate without it. “We can’t keep doing it ourselves,” he says. “We have to adopt what is happening, what is out in the commercial environment.”

For the 2030s, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and software-defined environments will dominate what will happen. “The human has to get out of the discussion,” he declares. “The human has to be able to walk up and [have] things happen.” For example, in 2030, a human will sit down at a machine that will know this operator, know his or her credentials and know access authorization. All this will be done without the human doing anything, he predicts.

“As long as we have human beings making inputs and changing things, you’re going to have problems. And that’s what’s going away. We’re going to get the human out of the discussion and make machines more self-aware,” he offers.

This effect already is coming to bear in the pandemic, he notes. Many doors now open without being touched, which is a trend spreading far beyond supermarkets. This touchless activation, where people simply walk by and trigger an action, will spread much further.

At the heart of this advance lies identity. It would rely on knowing the characteristics of a human being that will not change whether in garrison or on a battlefield. “The whole point of zero trust is to get identity and lock it down, so that anything that happens you can trace to an individual,” Montemarano states. That has become evident in the pandemic with the ability to trace contact, he adds.

“The bottom line is that everything is moving faster and faster, and we can’t be relying on waiting for an individual to make a decision,” he states.

Needs are growing. “We need more of this; we need more bandwidth; we need more or faster compute,” he points out. “It’s not going to stop. It’s going to continue because we’re ravenous for data. AI itself is going to collecting data and forcing issues. The point here is, life has changed … we’re moving forward and we have to continue to adapt.”

He puts these changes into perspective with his description of the Earth. “People say the circumference of the Earth is about 24,900 miles. I don’t think that’s true. I think the circumference of the Earth is 250 milliseconds,” he says, referring to the time it takes for a signal to circle the Earth.

“It’s a different world out there,” he continues. “We can’t continue to think physically and kinetically. We’ve got to begin to realize that this is a new environment, and we have to think and act cyber.”

Montemarano views increased data, along with commercial activity, as the two trends shaping defense information systems in the coming decade. “We do not have our data where it belongs,” he states. He is not referring to physical location, but instead to standards, usability and interoperability, which constitute the nature of data. The department and its agencies are establishing data offices that will bring the data into the right format.

The movement toward the commercial cloud and a new nature of data are “part and parcel,” Montemarano adds. This will be necessary for the department to fully exploit AI and ML, as all elements of the department will need to share data in an understandable way.

The turn toward greater involvement with industry for innovation also brings greater focus on acquisition and procurement. DISA is migrating away from traditional award contracts toward other means for some acquisitions and that portends well for the future, Montemarano offers. He cites the adoption of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) as a good trend that will allow the agency to offer an award in a different environment than an ironclad contract. By the time a defined requirement is provided, technology and capabilities often have moved on. But OTA allows the interaction between government and industry to evolve along with technologies. Most importantly, it permits the government to address a concept rather than a hard-set requirement.

“I see the OTA being the best vehicle in terms of development efforts because it’s a combined effort between industry and government,” Montemarano offers. “We need to get out of these major acquisitions, go smaller, go more with OTAs and contracts specifically for certain supports—that will improve where we go forth,” he states. “We have to be more flexible; we have to stop with this business that we want it to be absolutely perfect.”

With the increased military dependency on commercial services and capabilities, the question of DISA’s role arises. Montemarano is not shy about describing the agency’s importance in the budding partnership with industry.

“DISA is the integrator,” he states. “The main customer of DISA is the combatant commanders. No other organization in the Defense Department has that joint [information technology] perspective. Without a DISA integrating the Army, Navy and Air Force systems, as well as other potential systems, the combatant commander is forced to try to figure it out himself.

“Providing for that joint solution or joint equity is what you need a DISA for,” he declares.

Commercial firms that develop information technology innovations do so for the marketplace, whereas the agency’s focus is exclusively on service to its defense customer. And, the agency maintains the global infrastructure that serves the Defense Department. DISA personnel go wherever a combatant commander asks to service this backbone, Montemarano says.

Adapting commercial capabilities for military applications is a prime function for DISA, as the vast majority of the agency’s budget goes directly to industry. This ensures that the commercial capabilities meet government requirements, Montemarano points out.

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