Before the new coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Navy regularly had 100,000 remote users on its network.
Now, as millions of Americans work from home, the Navy has expanded its network to 250,000 users and plans to increase that amount to 500,000 in two to three weeks.
The Navy’s change is part of a broader movement at the Pentagon as the Department of Defense has rolled out over 900,000 user accounts for a new remote work environment in April. That includes creating as many as 250,000 accounts in one day last week.
IT projects that once took years, may now take just days or weeks, officials said.
The effort is funded in part by $300 million from the most recent coronavirus relief package signed by President Donald Trump. For the Department of Defense and the military services, the pandemic has meant rapidly increasing network capacity, improving cybersecurity and expanding IT programs to ensure missions across the globe can continue uninterrupted.
“The speed and magnitude of what the department has implemented in such a short amount of time is truly extraordinary," Dana Deasy, the Pentagon’s top IT official, said April 13 during a press conference.
With more that 4 million military and civilian employees teleworking across the globe, preparing the DoD enterprise for telework was a massive undertaking, said Lt. Gen. Bradford Shwedo, the chief information officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Each of the services worked closely with the Defense Department CIO’s office to prepare for a telework increase for its employees and servicemen.
In March, the CIO’s office released do’s and don’ts of telework, as did Navy Personnel Command. Cmdr. Dave Benham, spokesperson for Fleet Cyber Command, said the Navy is improving capacity to ease the stress on networks and service help desks.
“The highest levels of the Navy’s operational leadership are being updated daily on network and Service Desk performance and efforts to improve telecommuter user effectiveness,” Benham said in a statement March 31. “We have gained many important insights during the past two weeks of large-scale telework, and we are moving rapidly to increase capacity, while maintaining network security.”
In additional, the Air Force successfully deployed additional telework capacity, capability and bandwidth to support telework, according to Air Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Bryan Lewis.
Lewis told C4ISRNET that the Air Force implemented its large-scale End User Remote Access Management, or EURAM, virtual private network connections, which he described as a “monumental accomplishment.” Shwedo said that before the pandemic, the Air Force’s VPN could accommodate 10,000 users. But Lewis said EURAM — the modern VPN replacement — can scale to 400,000 concurrent connections.
Deasy also said the Air Force upgraded 12 key infrastructure sites, which increased its bandwidth by more than 130 percent.
Shwedo noted that the capacity upgrades the services are undertaking typically take one to two years from planning to completion, but under the coronavirus pandemic, that timetable is now “days to weeks.”
The Army also significantly increased its telework capabilities. According to Shwedo, the service has roughly 800,000 telework employees on DoD networks, and “the overall demands there are [increasing] daily.”
Improvements by the Army led to a 400 percent increase in network access for data and voice capacity, Deasy said. Army Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford, the Army CIO/G-6, told C4ISRNET in a statement that the service rolled out collaboration tools and improved internet connection, along with teleconferencing capacity.
With more users traversing the network, however, cybersecurity risks increase, which service officials said they take seriously. “We have disseminated clear guidance that the same discipline, awareness, and security measures required for on-site work must be observed by our personnel when working remotely, and additionally, have provided information and guidance on new emerging threats,” Crawford said in a statement.
Inside the Pentagon, network capacity needed to expand significantly as the majority of the department’s employees work from home. This has led to a surge in the need for remote networks, accounts and “unprecedented” demand for devices for remote use, Deasy said.
To pay for it, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided the department with an additional $300 million to procure information technology.
“We are truly in unprecedented times in our nation," Deasy said during a press briefing. “The national emergency due to the coronavirus COVID-19 global pandemic has no doubt brought new changes to the ways Americans go about their daily jobs. Specifically, the way we work has changed dramatically within the last month.”
To maintain insight over the new risks and needs associated with telework, Deasy established the COVID-19 telework readiness task force. According to Deasy, the task force members include U.S. Cyber Command, Joint Force Headquarters DoD-Information Network, the National Security Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, military staff and representatives from the DoD CIO’s office.
The team is meeting daily for two hours “to review and address various technical issues and requests as they arise,” Deasy said. Officials discuss seven topics: equipment needs; network capacity; IT personnel and contracting readiness; supply chain; cybersecurity/intelligence; financial requirements; and high-interest items.
“Our networks have seen significant increase[s] in traffic as well,” Deasy said. “The task force has successfully navigated this increase in demand, and we are rolling out equipment and increasing network capacity where needed.”
Within the walls of the Pentagon, the department’s IT officials have handed out additional devices to 2,000 personnel, Deasy said. In the early days of telework for the DoD workforce, the Pentagon also had to establish who needed remote email access, remote access to file sharing and email, and remote access to a full office experience, Essye Miller, deputy principal in the DoD CIO’s office, said in late March.
The Defense Information Systems Agency, tasked with providing connectivity and securing DoD networks, has increased the DoD’s internet service provider connections by 30 percent, Deasy said. He added that the DoD’s telecommunications provider has doubled the Pentagon’s call volume capacity.
In the press conference, Deasy also said the department has seen a tenfold increase in global video services, Outlook web access and enterprise audio conferencing.
“This is the largest rollout ever implemented in this short amount of time,” Deasy told reporters.
One of the department’s biggest accomplishments so far is the rollout of the Commercial Virtual Remote environment, an enterprisewide Microsoft Office environment remotely accessible. As of April 13, the platform had 900,000 accounts and 78,000 active logins, Deasy said. He touted that 250,000 new accounts were added in a single day last week.
One question that remains is why the DoD, which prides itself on being prepared for worst-case scenarios, had networks that weren’t already built to handle such a spike in traffic.
“Despite the fact that many DoD organizations have adopted telework in recent years and even built it into their contingency plans for things like pandemics, it has never been utilized at the scale it is being now with the majority of employees working remotely,” said David Mihelcic, former chief technology officer of DISA.
Current security measures in place like virtual private networks for the DoD’s teleworking employees just weren’t built for a situation like this, he said.
“Simply, they were not sized for the number of simultaneous users,” Mihelcic said.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.