Creating a unified, interoperable data architecture, or “fabric”, would allow military services around the world to make full use of the vast amounts of data they already collect and create tools to ensure that the information is analyzed quickly an accurately, according to new research from IBM and Oxford Economics.

The white paper, released Sept. 7 by the IBM Institute for the Business Value and the U.K.-based research group, lays out the challenges and opportunities for armed services around the management, access and deployment of data and data technologies, including AI and generative AI, to improve decision making, and makes recommendations for defense organizations.

“While military hardware and well-trained troops will remain essential, defense officials must broaden their focus on warplanes, ships, and artillery to include superiority in the processing, analysis, governance, and deployment of data as key measures of combat readiness,” the paper says. “And when information flows at the speed of light, many of the current systems of command and control are too plodding to gather and communicate pertinent data that can identify and neutralize emerging threats.”

Navy command and control exercise

The authors conducted dozens of surveys over several months, including conversations with former U.S. Air Force Major General Robert Wheeler, Dutch Air Force Colonel Talitha Born and other leaders across NATO and the Five Eyes. The subjects gave their insights into how military organizations would benefit from a unified, consistent view of data across different systems, platforms and sources that can be deployed at the tactical edge, also referred to as data fabric.

In an exclusive interview with C4IRSNET, IBM’s Terry Halvorsen and Oxford Economics’ Michael Zielenziger, who spearheaded the creation of the paper, explained how “the data fabric architectural approach, along with trusted AI, is essential to break data silos, simplify data, facilitate self-service data consumption, and deliver the data needed by commanders for better decision-making from the HQ to the edge.”

The White Paper concludes with a call to accelerate true data interoperability that enables decision advantage. The authors say defense officials should:

Treat data as seriously as any weapons system. Create a classification of “data officers” that mirrors the responsibility of weapons control officers.

Prioritize the establishment of a joint data task force to create a unified data architecture that will govern multi-domain operations for the US and its allies in NATO and Five Eyes.

Convene a military-civilian working group to collaborate with cloud computing providers and software companies, to develop standards of interoperability that can accelerate data sharing, using commercial technologies while still maintaining necessary level of cryptographic and data security principles.

Place a greater priority on issues around data governance and reliability. As the conversation around AI will inevitably accelerate, so will the need to ensure that all data sources are authentic and reliable.

“Military organizations must change the way they approach the adoption of IT by moving away from a focus on hardware-centric solutions to commercially available products and services, many of which are already available in the marketplace, to gain and maintain data superiority,” Halvorsen and Zielenziger told C4ISRNET.

The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated how an agile military using commercially available satellite communications, mobile internet towers, low-cost drones, cellphone videos and open-source software can fuse data relatively seamlessly and carry out precise combat operations, they said in the report. Ukraine was able to develop its data-driven warfighting assets quickly, but replicating that success across multiple large military establishments will be a bigger job.

This array of sophisticated systems “requires you to change the way you do business,” Maj. General Wheeler said in the report. “But the only way we’re going to survive and prevent the next fight, hopefully never have to fight it—and if we have to fight it, win it—is by having these kinds of fabrics.

“So, this is not anything that’s futuristic. It is just getting people together to understand it.”

More In Cyber