Data Is the Tip of the Spear in CJADC2
The premise of the Pentagon’s recently re-termed “combined” Joint All-Domain Command and Control (CJADC2) is breathtaking in its simplicity: Sense, make sense and act. In other words, that any and every device—including machines, weapons, sensors, unmanned aerial systems and computers—used by U.S. warfighters and their allies and partners can be used to create a common operational picture (COP) for any battlespace they occupy. Further, the COP can be tailored to meet the needs of everyone in the battlespace chain of command, from the generals and admirals all the way down to individual warfighters.
Plenty of attention is being paid to the intricacies in executing CJADC2. The Army (Project Convergence), Navy (Project Overmatch), and Air Force (Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)) all tackle communications and interoperability challenges within their domains, with the aim of eventually being able to cross-reference each other’s devices for near-real time information.
What often gets overlooked in the conversation about the complexity of the initiative is the data— arguably the lifeblood of the entire enterprise. In fact, data is central to just about everything the military must do.
In 2021, Gen. John Hyten, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of JADC2: “The simple requirement will be from this day forward, all data produced by the Department of Defense (DoD), all data produced by every weapon system in the Department of Defense, will be accessible, period. It has to be that way. There can be no other alternative. And the reason it has to be that way is because without that data, and without that data accessibility, we will not achieve the speed that we need to deal with the future that we face.”
Lt. Col. Richard (Rick) Howard, USAF (Ret,) now enterprise account executive, USAF/USSF/DOE Programs at Progress MarkLogic, agrees with that observation. “From my perspective, data is so important right now it has to be the focus point not just of CJADC2, but of every effor [in the military]. It could be HR. It could be health care,” he told SIGNAL Media during an interview. “CJADC2 is just a more exponential level.”
Howard is in a position to see this clearly. Before joining the MarkLogic team, he served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, first flying command control intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (C2ISR) aircraft and later as an acquisitions officer, providing him with unique insight into both operational requirements and the defense contracting process. His company is a prime contractor for ABMS. “Any program that involves data, you should start with data management, the data platform,” he said.
Wrestling with Data
In 2017—an eternity in today’s technology development lifecycle—the then-director for defense intelligence at the Pentagon estimated the Defense Department gathered 22 terabytes of data every day. While that number is small compared to many commercial applications (Facebook currently generates about 4 petabytes of data per day), it is important to remember that a military application may be searching for a single needle among thousands of needlestacks, to update the metaphor, and the quantity of data has continued to expand over the past six years.
There are hundreds of different data formats, many unique to their particular use—word files, images, graphics, video, audio, sensors, signals and proprietary software formats, to name a few. Some data files are tiny (sensors may gather just two or three readings per day, for instance), while others, such as video, are massive. There are not even consistent conventions for such simple information as the format for dates; some use DD/MM/YY, others may be DD/MM/YYYY, and yet others may be MM/DD/YYYY, and so on. Masking personally identifiable information such as a Social Security number can be complicated by how the field is labeled—SSN, SS#, Social or ID# all may refer to the same thing, and it must be sorted out quickly. Or think of the complications from measuring distance in feet/miles or meters/kilometers, something that must be considered so U.S. allies and partners can share their data and share in the results.
For CJADC2 to operate properly, it must be built on a data hub that can immediately ingest any type of data without reformatting, which can cause massive delays, and then index all of the information for search and query, securely and at speed. The data layer then must apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the data, essentially instantly. Only then can it convey the relevant information to the appropriate users—and it all has to happen very quickly indeed in order to facilitate decisions in the real-world battlespace.
“It’s not just for each [geographic] theater, but even each user,” Howard said. “It doesn’t matter where you are. There’s a lot of information available that you’re going to put in your operational picture. ... Even in your AOR, your area of responsibility, different levels of users need different levels of information. So the data layer is the way to ensure getting the right data to the right user at speed.
“It’s up to us at the MarkLogic team to provide the capability to make those decisions,” he continued. “When a thousand decisions have to be made in an hour during a battle or high-speed action, a general can’t make that many, but we can help,” by setting rules, automating and putting the right security parameters in place. Many of those thousand decisions would be made by the operators, requiring one set of data, while the strategic decisions would be made by a senior leader requiring a potentially much different data set, Howard said. “MarkLogic can delineate this at speed according to how it is set up.”
The decision to take a specific action must be human-generated, Howard explained, but the data layer can concentrate all the information vying for attention down to the essentials and priorities, including identifying where the data is insufficient. “We might have a capability to [extrapolate] data, but you can’t have the data platform making the guess, you have to have human input.” Sensors, for instance, may not be able to communicate in a contested environment. “The edge nodes need to be able to understand what the latest data is,” he said.
The data layer also must account for how to use classified information. To that end, DoD and the intelligence community recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement for secret cloud services that can be used by both.
“Many companies can demonstrate an amazing user interface to the government that on the surface, appears to solve the problem. Six months later, when they’re on contract, they either cannot connect to the required systems that are at varying security levels or they need to reformat data before ingesting, often both. Either can cause massive delays, increase cost and potentially kill the project. The most important part on any effort that involves data is the data platform it’s built upon,” Howard said, drawing upon his experiences as a DoD acquisitions officer. “In the past, that wasn’t the primary consideration.”
Then there is the issue of security. “There’s always the threat of security challenges in an AOR,” Howard said. “When I consider the multiple data feeds and information required to conduct military operations, especially in a contested environment, I need to know which data sets are the most current and that I can trust the information I’m using to make decisions. The data hub/platform becomes that much more critical when we add different security levels, multiple users and partner nations.”
Putting an End to Data Silos
Depending upon one’s viewpoint, the technical challenges in getting the data platform in place and able to handle such disparate types of data flow are numerous and difficult, but not insurmountable. The bigger challenge lies in changing the many layers of the DoD culture. One way a culture controls its environment is by keeping information siloed, a well-recognized issue within the military, one reason the new secret cloud services Memorandum of Agreement is so significant.
“Each service has its own culture, and then there are subsets of those cultures,” Howard said. “In my 20 years in the Air Force, I saw those [slowly evolve.] They don’t happen right away, and they don’t necessarily happen intentionally.”
The Air Force tackled this challenge by creating a new Integrating Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications and Battle Management, or PEO-C3BM, with Brig. Gen. Luke Cropsey as its first leader.
“At the AFCEA [Lexington-Concord Chapter] New Horizons conference in March, one of the PEOs stood up and talked about how [Gen. Cropsey] as the ABMS PEO has the ability to reach into different programs in the Air Force to ensure everyone was working together,” Howard said. “These culture shifts don’t happen overnight, but if new leaders come in and hear they’re supposed to share, [it’s] a shift in the right direction. I like where it’s going, a new, smarter generation of military leaders.”
Opening silos extends beyond making data available; it reaches into the acquisition process as well. The Air Force, for example, has awarded multiple Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity prime contracts for ABMS, with close to 100 companies receiving awards. The other services can use the ABMS vehicles, as well, Howard said.
“From an acquisition standpoint, it’s always been more focused on platforms,” Howard said, meaning specific aircraft, satellites, weapons systems. “This is a system of systems. It’s going to affect multiple programs, multiple PEOs … We’re all in a new environment.”
And that environment will continue to evolve. New technologies will be developed, older systems will have to be replaced, new ideas will emerge for ways to act on the data. If CJADC2 is to be successful, it cannot be a finite program, but an open-ended one, always with an eye toward harnessing the never-ending flow of zeros and ones.