American warfare is getting a system update. When the Department of Defense announced its Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative — creating an interconnected, cross-branch technological ecosystem of data sharing and analysis — it acknowledged that the state of war has fundamentally changed. In a conflict landscape that straddles both kinetic and nonkinetic battlefields, and features technologically advanced adversaries, prevailing against those adversaries requires an all-inclusive connection between military assets of all kinds. Simply put: What good are multi-billion-dollar defense systems if they can’t operate together to meet the tough challenges of tomorrow’s digital battle space?
From a technical standpoint, JADC2′s goal of creating this information nexus will solve an issue that’s long plagued the DoD: the lack of ability to seamlessly and quickly access, analyze and act on disparate data sets. Born from a longstanding DoD practice of procuring primarily by service — which allowed each service to invest in systems that don’t necessarily integrate holistically — the DoD has effectively run on a patchwork of separately owned solutions, creating friction among operational processes for everything from internal process management to battlefield command and control. A unified but federated platform stands to eliminate that friction and increase transparency at every conceivable level.
That said, how that unified platform is built will determine how successful JADC2 will be in the long run. One option relies on private industry to provide the heavy lifting in design, development and deployment. On paper, this approach might read as quite appealing given the limited resources of the DoD to take on an initiative of this magnitude and the ability to transfer risk to the private sector. Theoretically, these private entities might design the car, hand the keys over to DoD leaders and let them hit the pedal to the floor. Tactically, however, this approach has very real limits, rooted most critically in ownership, customization, and the element of the unknown inherent in military scenarios and the fact that there is no single IT vendor that has all the components to fight the Digital War. In the private sector, each IT company has a specialty whether is it networking, cloud or development of a specific application — there is no single vendor that has all the needed pieces. We will have to work together to solve this challenge.
Outsourced solutions often come with the implicit assumption that the initial requirements accurately capture the mission needs of any given system — often specified many years in advance of fielding. But what happens when the mission, driven by dynamic competitors, changes? Given the third-party ownership of the technology, that leaves little room for DoD technologists to develop or buy new solutions in real time within the existing framework. They are forced to work within a system that is fundamentally designed against flexibility and agility — two core requirements for operational success. This is particularly true for systems designed to manipulate information — which, increasingly, will be all of them. Communications, data and artificial intelligence are all areas that continue to rapidly evolve and must be met with solutions that can evolve alongside them. Not to mention the cost factor, as relying on private industry-owned intellectual property leaves the DoD subject to higher prices.
The other option? The DoD places a priority on ownership of data, interfaces and critical technology, even if partnering with private industry to create particular solutions. Functionally, this would mean building a collective network of government-owned architectures, embedded with government-owned application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable each unit within the DoD to not only share data and insights across different platforms, services and domains, but experiment and customize solutions across a single, secure network. As the connective tissue between systems, it’s the APIs that allow applications to talk to each other and share data, even between closed systems.
In fact, it’s the ownership of the APIs that make this solution sustainable compared to relying on private industry ownership. Government ownership ensures that a third-party system owner cannot keep the most critical data for themselves without the government’s involvement, giving the DoD maximum control. Further, the second option assumes that the specific needs of an institution such as the DoD could be readily addressed by a collective of industry partners at a moment’s notice.
In practice, this is the difference between DoD leaders providing a set number of tools and keeping their fingers crossed that those tools will effectively serve the mission, versus handing their teams the building blocks to design and update the tools — at scale and rapidly — specifically for the mission at hand. Importantly, this approach also creates agility and speed. Rather than attempting to reverse engineer a solution with a limited number of resources, teams can craft an effective, deployable solution with minimal lead time.
Understanding the unique needs of modern warfare and the opportunity JADC2 presents, the DoD must take its cues from leading technological innovators — that is, work with leading experts to create an environment in which flexibility, adaptability and scalability reign, all under a single, secure and open network. This will not only guarantee that solutions will adhere to the strongest engineering specifications and standards, but it also eliminates the policy and structural barriers that have prevented data integration at the DoD for years.
Warfare continues to undergo rapid transformation, and JADC2, if developed successfully, will be an unmatched initiative in helping war fighters prevail against near-peer adversaries. As the landscape continues to evolve, the system architecture that underpins this critical pillar of U.S. defense must be built on design principles that encourage innovation and speed to need. At the end of the day, if you are still a skeptic, remember that one of the best DoD networking innovations was ARPANET which became the internet. It can happen again.
Greg Wenzel is an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.