IT/Networks

The Navy’s top data official wants to incentivize interoperability

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s joint warfighting effort, known as JADC2, depends on the ability to transfer data between disparate systems. To help build out those capabilities, service leaders have kicked off a new round of discussions about common data standards and how to encourage contractors to follow those guidelines.

Tom Sasala, the Navy’s chief data officer, said Feb. 17 during C4ISRNET’s “Removing Stovepipes” series that officials are looking to find communications gaps that would hinder joint warfighting.

“You have a lot of weapon systems that have been under development in in the field for 20 or 30 years and now we’re asking them to suddenly start talking to each other using modern web services and technologies that most of them weren’t even built on,” Sasala said.

Here are four other ideas Sasala discussed that could improve JADC2 and the Navy’s data environment.

Learning how incentivize interoperability

The military services are beginning to work together on data standardization. In a meeting late last month, top data officials from the services and the joint staff met to settle on a definition of a common data fabric to set the foundation for data interoperability.

But one problem that remains is that the current acquisition process does not encourage vendors to build systems that can connect to each other.

“We pay a vendor to build a system and we pay a different vendor to build a different system. There’s not a whole lot of incentive right now for those two vendors to talk to each other,” Sasala said.

“True interoperability is really going to have to happen by the government for the government. It needs to be a combination of workforce skills and cultural change, as well as acquisition policy and process change, where the government program managers insist that the system they’re building must be able to speak to the system that some other program manager is building.”

For example, one incentive could be to include contract language that offers additional money for systems that can connect more easily to other. Or, conversely, the department could include language that would disincentivize systems that only work in a silo.

“We’re trying to figure out exactly when you employ these different models right now,” Sasala said.

Defined data standards for Joint All Domain Command and Control?

Sasala said service leaders are making progress on exactly which systems need to be able to communicate.

“Part of the conversation was focused on the gaps that we have in exchanging information,” Sasala said. “And part of the conversation was on the interoperability problems we have with exchanging data.”

For example, Sasala mentioned that how militaries throughout the world use Link 16, a communications system used by the U.S military, NATO and coalition partners, could change. That’s in part because it’s not easy to change a system that’s globally dispersed and that was developed decades ago.

Sasala said he made a recommendation to the JADC2 cross-functional team that partners should “look at the operational nodes, and how they’re communicating today and find either gaps or interoperability issues in those nodes and focus our standards on those, rather than creating whole new standards that people then need to turn around and adopt.”

Data security

The SolarWinds breach that afflicted several U.S. government agencies has raised eyebrows within the information security community at the department. With the reliance of third party vendors for many IT contractors, service officials are looking toward zero-trust architectures to secure their networks.

Zero-trust is “a little bit of a buzzword right now in my personal opinion, but the notion of zero-trust has to be fully embraced, where nothing on the network is trusted,” Sasala said.

Right now, he said, software isn’t mature enough to validate identity at each stop along a network: the router, the switch, the computer to the DoD’s common access card. While the end goal is zero-trust, the basics of data security are still fundamental: encrypting data at rest and in transit.

In the future, he said he’s looking at polymorphic encryption, which would allow data to be used while still encrypted. But this approach, he said, still has vulnerabilities to quantum computers.

The Navy’s changing its approach to data

Within the last week, Sasala said that the Navy started changing how it looks at data. This includes using analytics for the performance management of systems that could ultimately lead to cost savings.

The Navy is starting to pull in data from program aspects such as contracts, sustainment or delivery orders that can provide insight into program milestones, instead of setting performance metrics dashboards. By using analytics, the service hopes to save money and reallocate those funds. Sasala said the Navy returns a “fair amount” of total obligated funds every year. Using analytics, the service could determine where that unspent money is and instead spend it elsewhere.

“We can start modeling things and do ‘what if’ scenarios now,” Sasala said. “So what if we were able to find 15 percent of unspent every year? What could we spend it on? So we have a 355 ship target but we’re only funded at 310? Well, that seems like an easy target ... Those are all trade spaces that the Secretary doesn’t have today that we want to open up in the future.”

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