Marines Delve into Advanced Information Technologies
To support a more lethal warfighter, the service looks to industry offerings in cloud, advanced computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, along with improved internal policies to make it all happen.
With an onslaught of new technologies ever present on the horizon, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is working to make sense of what technologies will work for them, not only in the traditional warfighting domains, but also in cyber—the new domain. Right now, they have a long list of priorities associated with modernizing the network, meeting standards and mandates, and fielding new capabilities.
The problem is that existing policies and procedures are sometimes standing in the way. Acquisitions expert, Col. Benjamin Stinson, USMC, portfolio manager, Supporting Establishment Systems (PfM SES), Marine Corps Systems Command, likens the need to field technology in the current environment to playing a football game where the goals are always moving, or the ball is being placed on the field in random spots.
“It’s kind of like playing football, where we are on the 30-yard line to kick the field goal, but as we are running out on the field of play, the referees move the goal posts,” he said. “We can’t execute fast enough a single plan before the plan needs to be changed again.”
Similar to the Navy’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems, the Marine’s PfM SES handles the procurement of anything related to enterprise information technology, including command and control (C2) systems, network sustainment, base telephone infrastructure, software licenses, technology refresh and cloud, among others. Stinson oversees an acquisition portfolio of 90 programs and initiatives that reach 200,000 users (or seats), with $1 billion in annual contract execution.
“One of the things that we are struggling with as an enterprise [comes] as cyberspace demands to be recognized as a warfighter domain equal to the traditional domains of sea, air, land, space and by the way, it’s the only domain that exists with the other domains,” Col. Stinson said. “Our governance, our C2, our kinetic, forward networks and our governance of how we do this across the USMC, we can’t keep operating the way we were. We can’t call a play and execute before the ball gets moved.”
As such, the USMC is looking for help from industry to answer some pretty difficult questions, Col. Stinson said.
Concerning data management, the service is looking for application and database rationalization tools that can help strengthen their data, both offensively and defensively. On one side, the service is a lot like a bank, the colonel said, in that it has a lot of defensive data needs. For example, dealing with money, wanting serial numbers to be correct on equipment and wanting to make sure a soldier’s social security number is correct in the system, the service needs verified, “single source truths” in their databases.
“We need one element that we know is ground truth contributing to that database,” the colonel said. Then on the tactical edge, the service has to manage applications that estimate where the enemy is, where they might be going, what might be happening, along with conflicting reports. In that case, with multiple sources of truth, they need a different data approach, with trend analysis—an offensive data strategy. And they need to be able to bring both strategies together.
“In the USMC, we truly have to have a hybrid offensive and defensive data strategy,” Col. Stinson stated. “And we have to combine the two and know in our applications which thing we are dealing with before we let loose artificial intelligence and machine learning into that environment. Because if we can’t clean up our data bases and we can’t tell where the single source of truth is, then this is no different than any other computer model: garbage in and garbage out.”
He thinks that there will be “a lot of work coming down” for industry in this area. “We are going to need a lot of smart help on data base rationalization and application,” Col. Stinson said. “And we are going to need your truthfulness in what your tools do, in terms of how they map to data elements, so that we can predict the validity of artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are going to need your help in getting that confidence in data.”
As for the cloud, the colonel worries that the service leaped a bit before looking. “So we have cloud, in that the Marine Corps Enterprise Information Services (MCEITS) is notionally a data center, but now we want these other capabilities, and new and better applications, and we want things to go faster,” Col. Stinson shared. “But we should have known as an organization before we said that we want to rush to cloud how we were actually going to do cloud. We can’t agree yet in the USMC. We need to get our act together to know what we want and how we want it, and how to deliver it and how it will work with our environment.”
The colonel noted that Charlotte Thomas, program manager, Applications, PfM SES, and her group would be handling the managed services organization component to cloud. Thomas, who is responsible for planning the contracting strategy for cloud across the USMC, confirmed that they “are considering everything.” They also are leveraging the experiences of cloud of their sister services. “We just met with the [Navy’s] Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) last week and talked about a couple of contracts they had awarded that failed,” she said. “So we are going to take a different approach and start with a couple of pilots, just to make sure that we are capturing lessons learned for the USMC.”
PfM SES expects to award their first incremental contract for cloud this summer, Thomas stated.
Next, the colonel was pleased about USMC’s successful migration to the Microsoft Windows 10 secure host baseline operating system, noting that they were the only service to do so by March 31, 2018, as per DOD’s mandate.
The latest hurdle for the service: getting wireless capability out to everyone in the USMC. “So what does somebody get for doing something that nobody thought you could do, no one expected you to do? You get another task, right behind it, and harder,” he laughed. “So now we are looking at wireless.”
As far as robotics, Col. Stinson shared that some of the big questions the military was facing when he was working with unmanned systems back in 2006 are still relevant today. “Back then we would ask, these things don’t have operators so where and how are we going to test them,” he asked. “How are we going to make our training and our simulation and our test ranges suitable for these unmanned systems, especially when you talk about manned and unmanned teaming, how do you test that? We are still working on that, and it’s been ten years.”
Lastly, like the other services, the USMC is studying how they can harness artificial intelligence and machine learning. The colonel shared one area he was considering, which relates to data management. “On artificial intelligence and machine learning, if those products are tools that learn when they go through your data and find patterns and get better at recognizing patterns, it seems to me that what is happening is that the code is writing more code,” he ventured. “Is it not? It is creating and refining its own algorithms. How do I configuration manage that? How do I test that? How do I credit and verify that working with the other things that it has to work with. What happens when I put that same AI tool on a tactical database and also on a garrison database and I break off the tactical one? What is going to happen when I merge that database back and I want to bring all the data back in, what are those two tools going to tell me?”
In particular, he wants to know how to figure out how to weigh values in algorithms for dates, applicability and data sets. “As you come to talk to us about these tools, know that is what we are thinking about,” the colonel stated.