Fighting in the Information Age: Tenets of a Data-Centric Approach to Warfighting

Greg Gardner, PhD, CISSP Colonel, Infantry, U.S. Army (Retired) Chief Architect, Defense & Intel Solutions, NetApp [NASDAQ:NTAP]
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Greg Gardner, PhD, CISSP Colonel, Infantry, U.S. Army (Retired) Chief Architect, Defense & Intel Solutions, NetApp [NASDAQ:NTAP]

Greg Gardner, PhD, CISSP Colonel, Infantry, U.S. Army (Retired) Chief Architect, Defense & Intel Solutions, NetApp [NASDAQ:NTAP]

The first day of the next major conflict won’t look like war. Instead, imagine a sort of digital collective blitzkrieg, with data-gathering software and sensors setting off alarms as they engage with artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Whoever collects the most data on day one may win the war before a single shot is fired.

William Roper runs the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). Futures are his business. In a 2017 Defense One article describing how the next big war will turn on AI, Roper predicts, “The countries that win wars will have secured the upper hand early through strategic data collection, not by destroying enemy aircraft or other systems. The first couple of days will be the most important, as aircrafts (manned or unmanned) collect data to increase learning system sophistication—too outsmart the enemy.”

Data is the fundamental fuel for national security into the foreseeable future. The problem, however, is that both the military and the intelligence community need more modern ways to value and leverage data to create new products, services, and ways of outmaneuvering potential combatants. Leading commercial companies view data as if it were oil; it’s wealth and fuel. What they do in employing data to teach and train autonomous systems can also work for defense organizations.

Colonel Jason Brown, a U.S. Air Force Wing Commander, recently wrote about data-driven transformation of intelligence in The National Interest. Col. Brown argues that if the U.S. government is to effectively deal with elusive adversaries, the intelligence community must transform data into a structured story to serve as the foundation for its intelligence assessments. Sophisticated data analytics are changing our routines; intelligence analysis must catch up. We need to pair intuition and expertise with data science to give decision makers the best possible intelligence. In turn, intelligence and defense leaders must accelerate this data-driven transformation of intelligence tradecraft and demand a more structured intelligence analysis.

   Leading commercial companies view data as if it were oil; it’s wealth and fuel  

Military and intelligence departments must transition from a computer-centric to a data-centric view to fight effectively. This transition will require both a new approach to data management and a cultural change within the DoD.

Transforming Data to Empower Defense and Intelligence Operations

The approach to warfighting in the Information Age requires a new mindset. Digital transformation should top the strategic agenda in both our military and intelligence communities.

This transition is not easy; the leadership challenge is significant. Military and intelligence leaders are under tremendous pressure to harness today’s wealth of data and to create value across their organizations, all with limited time, skills, and budget.

Further, building a data-centric organization is no small undertaking. Today data comes in many forms and is stored in multiple locations, both on premises and in the cloud. The dynamic nature of data requires more vigilance from users to know where the data is, where it’s coming from, and that they are working from the single source of truth. These challenges combine to create an overwhelming amount of data that is incredibly difficult to validate and manage.

Effective Data Management for Warfighting Organizations

An effective approach to warfighting in the data-centric world of defense and intelligence requires data management solutions that are designed to allow visibility, insight, control, protection, and security of data from many sources, both military and commercial. Specifically, the data-centric approach to warfighting has three tenets: protection, simplicity, and openness:

- Protection: Operational and intelligence-related data must be safeguarded across its entire lifecycle, regardless of its location or classification.

- Simplicity: Data must flow easily and seamlessly between operational and intelligence environments in order to speed decision making, facilitate deep learning, and provide defense and intelligence more time and resources to invest in higher-value work.

- Openness: By leveraging an extensive network of sources, both within the military and from open-source media, military users can build innovative new services and solutions. Further, users will find that they have more creative and innovative courses of action as well as the freedom to choose what works best for their particular operational roles.

The potential benefits of this approach have significant implications. For example, in the postmortem of an event like the Crimea incursion, analysts would work alongside data scientists to tie datasets to miss indicators, folding them into algorithms that could drive artificial intelligence. This AI would help analysts predict future outcomes and better focus resources. As the ability of independent human-machine “Red Teams” to explore alternative futures matures, AI would learn to think like an adversary by looking for data, in specific combinations and quantities, in order to anticipate when, where, and how our adversaries might strike again.

The opportunities presented in the data-centric world could fundamentally change the way our military fights. The Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community should move immediately to leverage the incredible advantages of a data-centric approach, to catch up with—and, in some cases, surpass—private sector efforts, and to truly prepare for combat in the Information Age. In doing so, the U.S. military will no longer have to imagine operational success wrought by deeply analyzed and optimized data; they will be the success stories of tomorrow’s combat operations.

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