• U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II jets fire flares while breaking away after aerial refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker of the 340th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in August. In multidomain operations in the future, the Air Force will need a highly connected web of sensors across the air, land, sea and space.  U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keifer Bowes
     U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II jets fire flares while breaking away after aerial refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker of the 340th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in August. In multidomain operations in the future, the Air Force will need a highly connected web of sensors across the air, land, sea and space. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keifer Bowes

It Is All About the Nodes

The Cyber Edge
November 1, 2019
By Kimberly Underwood
E-mail About the Author

For the Air Force, the Internet of Things environment may mean advanced interconnected sensors, and a lot of them.


As the U.S. Air Force is working to define operations on the battlefield of the future, sensors or other digitally connected devices will play a key role—as they always have—but on a much larger scale, one expert says. For the military, the world of Internet of Things, or IoT, has to work across the air, land, space and sea domains. And for the Air Force to enable a greater sensor-based environment, it has to tackle data platforms, cloud storage and capabilities, communication infrastructure and its network, says Lauren Knausenberger, the Air Force’s chief transformation officer.

However, the key will be the ability to scale such an integrated and connected environment to meet not only the Air Force’s multidomain operations, but also Joint Force operations as well as coalition partner warfighting, Knausenberger observes.

“We recognize that we already have sensors and other nodes on just about everything, but in the future those numbers will multiply,” Knausenberger says. “There is an incredible amount of power if we can more rapidly connect all of those sensors into a data platform where we can run analytics, pull in increasingly advanced artificial intelligence technology, have a human make a decision, and then work with our joint service partners and coalition forces to take action.”

The warfighting environment of the future will play out concurrently across air, land, sea and space in an unrecognizable way compared to the past. Sensors and other IoT solutions will be a huge part of these multidomain operations, the chief transformation officer notes.

“It is an increased recognition that the future battle is going to be less and less like a historic land war or a dogfight, how we fought in World War II,” she says. “We’re going to have a very complex battle that involves all of our space assets, all of our sensors. We’re going to have airplanes talking to satellites, talking to ground troops, talking to Navy ships docking a submarine. And they all need to be working together.”

Warfighters will require expanded situational awareness across these multidomains to be able to make decisions quickly and use assets instantly when needed.

“That’s where IoT is incredibly important, as we see the way that the world is increasingly connected with sensors in more and more things, and there are even more tools at our disposal as we go to fight this war of the future,” Knausenberger explains.

At present, one limiting factor is the network. Millimeter wave or 5G will be a huge multiplier for IoT, she notes, but the 5G network is not fully installed. “We don’t yet have ubiquitous global connectively at speeds that we need for true sensor actions,” the innovation leader says. “The telecommunications industry is working aggressively to give us the communications infrastructure that we need. And once those network limitations are handled, we are going to have so much more power with IoT.”

In addition, the Air Force is considering flexible solutions such as sensor-as-a-service platforms, as well as working to get a broader understanding of what sensors they employ and the power of those sensors. They want to be able to get access to the data coming from those sensors to run analytics on the data.

“We can do this on a small scale today and actually have some pretty incredible effects. But to do it at scale, that’s really another [level of effort],” she says. “What it really comes down to is if the network is set to do it, and are we able to get the data.”

The service is building out a lot of the architecture to enable this future environment, including how to protect it, Knausenberger notes. “Once we have the capability that we want along that development path, how do we secure it?” she queries. “How do we make sure that we’re getting data from those sensors that hasn’t been tainted? Cybersecurity then becomes a major issue because we don’t want other people to take the information from our sensors and do something nefarious with it. We are already talking about all of the cybersecurity pieces that surround that, but they’ll become even more critical.”

Some of the National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance and Defense Department policies on how to secure networks and hardware are still relevant in securing IoT and other digitally connected sensors, but some security measures will need to be updated for the application of IoT, Knausenberger reasons.

“We have gotten to the point where it’s much more important in general to be able to understand the architecture of what is being proposed and have world class hackers come in and see where they can take advantage of a system, more so than to do a security check list,” she offers.

The Air Force’s world of sensors also will require a robust cloud platform to pull in all of the data, Knausenberger continues. “If we were starting from scratch with all new sensors, that wouldn’t be as hard as it is to look at a whole bunch of legacy data sources and different classification levels. The hard part is actually not the data platform. It’s getting to the authoritative sources and transitioning in some instances to more modern technology.”

Putting in place open architecture platforms and a cloud environment will help resolve some of those issues, she adds.

“We are already using more sensors in everything that we deploy, in airplanes, satellites, even airmen,” Knausenberger says. “I don’t think that is unique. It’s really just a matter of recognizing the power of it and making the planning choices to go from sensor to shooter. We can do that today for a project or for a mission. That’s not a problem. It’s just the ‘at scale for everything’ piece, that’s where the real challenge is. Anytime you get into something at our scale, it’s just a lot harder and it requires a lot more upfront homework and laying a foundation. And it is probably no surprise that foundation just hasn’t been placed in IT and the DOD in the last decade.”

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