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Defense CIOs Look to the Tactical Edge

Compute power, data analysis and storage are needed at the tactical edge for the nation’s geospatial intelligence agency, the Navy and Air Force.

To be able to face near-peer adversaries in degraded, denied and intermittent communication environments, U.S. warfighters need to be able to leverage tactical cloud computing at the battlefield or operational edge. For some departments, it is a large-scale and urgent need, chief information officers report.

A panel that included the chief information officers (CIOs) of the Air Force, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the Navy spoke yesterday at the AFCEA Rocky Mountain Chapter’s annual Cyberspace Symposium, held February 21-24 in Colorado Springs.

The NGA, in its unique, dual roles in intelligence and as a military combat support agency,  has already begun to apply edge capabilities, which even extend to the space domain, according to its CIO, Mark Andress.

“On the edge front it’s been really exciting to see what the team has done,” he shared. “The first thing was they took the hyperscale compute and products coming out of vendors and took those as commodity compute nodes and deployed those forward. We’d go out to the U.S. combatant commands and ask, ‘What is your O plan [operational plan],’ table top it and ask, 'Where are you going to need your data in the event of a crisis?' And we’d essentially spit out, at multiple classification domains, small nodes of the same data and tools in a light-weight form and web-based.”

The agency is seeing early dividends. “We’ve been doing it the past couple of years with emphasis in the EUCOM theater [U.S. European Command] and in Korea,” he stated. “I can’t tell you how much that is paying off today, given what is going on in the world today. We’ve learned a lot on the edge, and how to manage it, where it is strong and where it is weak. It is not completely there.”

Based on that experience, this year Defense Department officials and leaders in the intelligence community (IC) asked the NGA to head up a program called Joint Regional Edge Nodes (JREN).

“These are larger scale than those smaller nodes, and they are built with resiliency in mind,” Andress explained. “And when I say resiliency, I mean geographic diversity, multiple network paths and space-based paths not just for comms [communication]. And all the lessons learned that we are talking about are getting rolled up in this JREN. And that is a pretty exciting thing.”

Furthermore, the NGA is working on replication capabilities—the synchronization between large hyper-scale and forward edge nodes. “It seems easy but [it is not], and it may be because of our data types, our data is big,” NGA’s CIO stated. “It is big, giant data files that can choke pipes. To put it one way, we are the single biggest user of storage on C2S [the commercial cloud services platform of the IC] in the U.S. government.”

In the Navy, the ability to leverage edge computing “is a must solve,” said the service’s CIO, Aaron Weis. “We've been very focused on cloud and everyone focused on big cloud, macro cloud, enterprise cloud but we have got to get to solutions on edge cloud, tactical edge cloud,” he noted.

The Navy’s fleet of 300-some ships is the perfect use case for applying tactical edge cloud. And the tactical edge solution will help the Navy solve the expected denial, degraded and intermittent communications problems expected in a near-peer environment.

A confluence of technologies will enable edge computing environments to ships afloat at sea, Weis continued.

“We have a whole bunch of intersecting trajectories that are going to come together,” he suggested. “We have an ongoing effort to containerize most of the tactical applications that exist on a ship and I think that will come together with what's being done by Admiral Doug Small with Project Overmatch to be able to deploy software over satellites, to put updates in place in that containerized world, and then combine that with real tactical edge cloud capabilities so that the ship compute environment essentially becomes a tactical edge cloud. We’ve got to get after that and that is one area where I’m really looking forward to putting our heads together.”

On a small scale, the Navy has experimented with edge capability on some ships. Their fleet-wide demand for compute power at scale, however, would be immense.

“If you look at the total compute environment that exists on a nuclear carrier, it is 51 racks,” Weis said.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is pursuing the so-called IWN pilot program, which among other things, will deploy edge capability, reported the service’s CIO, Lauren Knausenberger.

“We have a great pilot going on in the Pacific theater right now, the IWN pilot, where we have deployed edge capability,” she said. “We are testing this today and it is making a big difference for our warfighters right now. And we're going to tie that into our [technology roadmap] road map."

It is part of the Air Force’s push to operate in an agile manner, quickly across the globe. “We are really getting our house in order when it comes to identity, software-defined wide area networks, being able to grab whatever communication signal we have from anywhere and being able to dynamically route signals.”

The effort is part of a greater push to employ the concepts of zero trust to operate in a near-peer environment, she noted. “We are very serious about our zero-trust road map,” Knausenberger offered. “And in terms of my priorities right now, I am very focused on how do we communicate that we are trying to get to a future where we can work and fight from anywhere, and how we can simplify our environment, and do this tangibly right now. One of the biggest things that we're trying to push through now is we have a road map to the future China fight, which is also very relevant to another fight [of Russia attacking Ukraine] that [may] come too soon.”