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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Four Steps the DoD Should Take to Achieve Battlefield ‘Digital Discipline’

Reducing the use of chatty software will require the DoD to “trim its digital sails” – that is, perform an in-depth audit of the technologies it uses and procures.

Have you ever tried to pack 50 pounds of gear into a 25-pound sack? There just isn’t enough room for everything. That’s why warfighters must make tough choices when they plan for operations. If they don’t prioritize their loads, they may have the wrong items – and operations will suffer.

Data is no different. In fact, having the discipline to ensure the right things make it into their bags or laptops is crucial. It takes “digital discipline.”

Digital discipline helps prioritize data streams to optimize compute resources and accelerate real-time decision-making. Given the ever-expanding amount of data collected, warfighters should be leveraging AI to help with the sorting. Without this prioritization, there’s a real risk that workloads could overwhelm the warfighter or AI’s ability to effectively process information and put troops in harm’s way.

To ensure this does not happen, the Department of Defense (DoD) must regulate and prioritize data ingestion by applying discipline to data collection and processing. To achieve digital discipline, the DoD must identify and separate mission-critical data from routine, non-critical information. Network traffic can then be automatically adjusted to ensure a higher quality of service for the most important data streams, which will directly enhance the warfighters’ decision processes and help them make the right decisions.

Let’s look at four tenets of digital discipline and how to implement them.

  1. Identify priority traffic

Warfighters often operate in Disconnected, Denied, Intermittent, or Limited (DDIL) environments where bandwidth is highly constrained. Yet systems are constantly being inundated with huge amounts of data from all domains, including air, land, sea, space, and cyber. In addition to adversely impacting AI, the sheer amount of data traffic can strain available bandwidth and compute and storage resources. It can also lead to significant increases in processing time and undermine the speed at which actionable intelligence is delivered to troops.

Prioritizing data streams and differentiating between high-priority and other types of data can help circumvent these challenges. For example, data that is very time sensitive may be prioritized over information that doesn’t require a near real-time response.

Guidelines on how to differentiate critical data streams from those of lower priority can be outlined in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs), Best Known Methods (BKMs), and other playbooks to provide clarity on data stream prioritization. Detailing these best practices can help ensure that everyone adheres to digital discipline practices.

  1. Reduce the use of “chatty” software

Some software tends to overcommunicate and share more information than is necessary. The DoD’s own C2 programs offer a good example. Some C2 systems require continuous connectivity to a central server in order to operate.  This would hinder real-world operations in a contested environment.  Systems need to be operational in all environments and should be enhanced with connectivity.  Anything else leaves units at a significant disadvantage.

That level of communication might be okay for the C2 systems in a training environment hosted at a central building, but it is not feasible on the battlefield. Indeed, systems that require constant communication and connectivity should not be used in theater.

It’s better to deploy technologies that can operate effectively without constant connectivity (think the offline mode in mobile apps such as Waze, Google Maps, Bing, etc.). This helps mitigate information overload and network congestion while supporting true maneuver operations in a DDIL environment.

  1. “Trim the digital sails”

Reducing the use of chatty software will require the DoD to “trim its digital sails” – that is, perform an in-depth audit of the technologies it uses and procures for operations and identify tools that it can safely minimize or even cut.

A good way to do this is to first analyze how much data each system pulls per minute and hour in a real environment. Then, identify which systems are pulling the most bandwidth, consuming the most power, and creating the most data stream noise. Following the audit, the DoD can begin phasing out these systems or customize them to create a cleaner and more efficient data environment.

  1. Take a security-first approach

None of these steps will matter if the technology being used to send and receive data is not secure. Therefore, any technology that the DoD considers must adhere to Zero Trust standards. That means deploying solutions built on secure frameworks and working with vendors that incorporate security into their application development processes from the beginning.

That must apply to all vendors in the software supply chain, including third and fourth parties. A vulnerability anywhere in that chain can result in security holes in the finished product. It’s important to perform the necessary due diligence to ensure that all software, up and down the chain, has been hardened, updated, tested, and is easily maintainable and patchable. This includes the hardware BIOS, virtualized OS (operating system), and all the networking technologies.

Asking the Right Questions

It’s time to stop worrying about what battlefield systems can do and begin to focus on what they need to do to empower warfighters. That means asking the right questions. What’s the minimal amount of power or bandwidth needed to provide actionable intelligence in real-time? What features are really needed to help warfighters complete their missions? If this solution is used, how much bandwidth or compute resources will it consume – and are those necessary? Where was it manufactured and who made the software? Does this solution create an electronic warfare (EW) or Defensive Cyber Operations (DCO) concern?

And of course, how much data is too much?

Because in a war zone, too much information can be detrimental to the fight – data strategies that limit or prioritize what gets transmitted can literally save lives, resources and ultimately missions.

Jason Dunn-Potter
Jason Dunn-Potter is a Senior Executive - Solutions Architect (Public Sector - FED / SLED / DOD / National Security) at Intel Federal Corps. Previously he was Chief Technology Officer – Strategy for the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), providing strategic IT services, training, and resources for White House operations encompassing 1,500 DoD military, civilians, and contractors. He served more than 25 years in the U.S. Army in a variety of IT roles including Director of IT Services and Chief Information Security Officer at 7th Infantry Division Headquarters.

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