World War I is often considered the first modern conflict; its combatants employed modern technology, including machine guns, armored vehicles and aircraft. Interestingly, the most spectacular victory in that bloody conflict was not won through use of those new and potent weapons. The Battle of Tannenberg, fought from Aug. 26–30, 1914, in what is now Stebark, Poland, was won through exploitation of an opponent’s information and communication network.
At the start of the war, before the Western Front settled into trench warfare, a German force of 150,000 faced an invasion from the east by two Russian army groups totaling 230,000 troops. The Russians used their new radios to broadcast orders and information in the open, without codes. The Germans intercepted this undisguised information to trap and nearly annihilate both Russian armies.
The short lesson is, the network matters in combat.
This is especially true today, because networks not only carry spoken information and commands, but they also transmit data of every kind. In addition to voice communications, the Army’s secure network carries maps, images, video, target coordinates and inventories of supplies and equipment. It also conveys sensor information where needed, including the effects of long-range precision fires, heat signatures produced by enemy equipment, the operating status of Army equipment and even the health of soldiers in the field.
For a commander to understand their own force array, logistical status and enemy composition, they require these and multiple other data types that compete for limited network bandwidth on a contested battlefield. That data is also foundational to human-machine teaming and decision support. Transmitting and protecting this information affects ongoing operations and mission success, and explains why data is often called the “ammunition” of the modern digital battlefield.
In a February 2022 message, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth described her second objective to help guide the force as ensuring that the Army becomes “more data-centric and can conduct operations in contested environments, which will enable our ability to prevail on the future battlefield.” That led the Army to define a datacentric force as follows:
“The data-centric Army employs advanced lethality, survivability, and tempo—empowers Leaders and Soldiers with the right information at the right time to gauge risk, optimize combat power, fully employ national means, and attain decision dominance at all echelons. Leaders leverage analytics to understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead, and assess. In real time, the Army learns, adapts, generates and sustains forces with integrated decision-driven analytic capabilities.”
In order to achieve this goal, the Army must shift from network-centricity to datacentricity to enable timely sharing of information across multiple classifications with the joint force and America’s coalition partners. While network-centricity focuses on secure transport, datacentricity is focused at the data level, with applications and information exchanges conforming to the natural format of the data rather than the data conforming to the preferred format of the applications. The datacentric Army is enabled by a datacentric architecture.
The ability to quickly and securely collect, process and transmit data, and the information derived from data, is critical to Joint All-Domain Command and Control operations with the Air Force, Navy, Marines, Space Force and Coast Guard, as well as the military forces of America’s allies. It is also essential if the Army is to be successful in conducting multidomain operations across land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.
As Army leaders continue this transformation to deliver the Army of 2030 and design the Army of 2040, recent events have provided a glimpse into the future, as the tactics seen in Ukraine illustrate that datacentric warfare is already here. As modern information technologies proliferate on the battlefield, the frequency, diversity, complexity and effectiveness of mission-relevant data pipelines will only increase.
But shifting to datacentricity requires more than just adding new types and volumes of data or equipment to the existing Army network. Datacentricity is an entirely different approach to network architecture in which data is handled and stored separately from the various systems and applications that use or analyze it. This maintains the data integrity, while allowing other users within and across various security domains to apply a broad range of tools and systems to process, analyze and leverage that data.
And rather than just securing the network—as the World War I-era Russians failed to do—datacentricity provides security of the data itself.
This datacentric architecture must be established using three principles that work in tandem: modern security architectures, robust transport and data fabric.
Modern Security Architectures
Modern security architectures are based on “zero trust” principles, a cybersecurity concept that moves away from a static, “perimeter-based” network defense. Perimeter-based defense grants trust and network access based on a location or an asset, such as particular computer terminals or classified rooms. Instead, zero trust focuses on identity, credential and access management and metadata information. This approach requires that users’ credentials, including their security classification permissions, match the requirements, attributes and classification level of the data. Thus, zero trust and datacentricity go hand in hand, with the classification of the data being part of its natural representation.
The Army is making progress in this realm by implementing pilot programs to establish a zero trust environment that determines how users access information and better protects data against adversaries. This allows for realistic testing and training for cyber forces as the Army works with DoD on implementing zero trust.
The Army communications network required for the future operating environment can take on many forms, including a mix of commercial and military satellites, radios and 5G connections. As it travels across each of these transports, the data is encrypted both while being stored, also known as “at rest,” or while being transmitted, also known as “in motion.” In a datacentric approach, how the data traverses the network—which path it takes—is not as important as who can access the data.
Since resilience is key, particularly in contested environments, taking advantage of the available diversity in transport through an adaptive Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency set of communications options ensures that the message or data is received, regardless of the transport path used.
The Army is advancing on robust transport by creating a diverse, resilient and secure unified network. This means overhauling the patchwork of often incompatible computer systems and networks accumulated over the past five decades in both the enterprise and tactical arenas.
The Army also is establishing more transport paths by experimenting with multiple types of communications mediums, such as commercial and military low-Earth-orbit satellites, medium-Earth-orbit satellites and tactical 5G solutions to provide connections in contested areas. Events such as Project Convergence allow the Army to experiment with these solutions with the joint force and coalition partners.
The third necessary component for datacentricity, a data fabric, refers to technology that securely weaves together numerous sources of information from different Army systems that use different data and messaging formats. Acting as a so-called catcher’s mitt for different sensors and a common layer that can route data to those who need it, data fabric reduces digital barriers between warfighting functional systems such as fires, maneuver, air defense and sustainment. In doing so, the data fabric allows commanders to leverage data from multiple services, echelons and weapon systems platforms to make faster and better-informed decisions.
The Army is developing a data fabric that makes more data available for the tactical edge by improving the capability to synchronize data between formations and echelons. This allows formations to leverage the tactical data fabric solution to enable sensor-to-shooter-to-sustainment threads, providing more options and pathways to transmit sensor data to lethal and nonlethal effectors on the battlefield.
For example, if an observer spots an unfamiliar vehicle setting up near a U.S. air base, upon receiving that information, the data fabric can route the image through automated identification algorithms (using artificial intelligence, for example) as well as human sources to quickly identify the vehicle.
If the unit determines the system is an enemy missile launcher, higher echelons can access that information, process it and send it to leadership for a decision on engaging the potential target. Leadership also can use the automated algorithms accessing the data fabric to determine the best system available for engaging the target, then route those coordinates in seconds rather than hours. The system also can store and distribute information on the effects of the attack.
While these steps have helped move the Army forward, more is needed to meet Wormuth’s goal of creating a datacentric Army that can attain decision dominance at all echelons.
The Army has been pushing the technological boundaries as units such as XVIII Airborne Corps and I Corps experiment with integrating cloud and artificial intelligence systems. However, this represents only a small portion of the Army at large, so how does the Army as a whole become datacentric? It starts with people. The Army needs formations with soldiers trained in managing a cloud installation, establishing data engineering pipelines and building software using development, security and operations to meet emerging needs. DevSecOps is a set of software development practices that combines software development, security and information technology operations to secure the outcome and shorten the development life cycle, according to DoD.
With the establishment of the U.S. Army Futures Command’s Army Software Factory, the U.S. Army Artificial Intelligence Integration Center’s AI Factory and XVIII Airborne Corps’ Data Warfare Company, the Army is rising to meet the demands of the digital battlefield. However, this alone is not enough. The Army must retain these soldiers and build the skills of the existing workforce as the service moves away from hardware-based systems to software-defined platforms. As the Army recruits, trains and retains the right people, it must continue putting technologies in soldiers’ hands for experimentation across the areas of modern security architecture, robust transport and data fabric.
The Army also is working to assess classification policies and apply potential different business practices to take advantage of technology advancements.
The Army is not doing this alone. Through the DoD Joint All-Domain Command and Control Cross-Functional Team, each service is pushing the digital boundary to create a more efficient joint force.
With properly trained and equipped soldiers, the Army will continue to progress toward datacentricity and prevail even in contested environments. Just as American soldiers have adapted throughout history to harness new technology and achieve victory, with these principles in mind, the Army will do the same on the battlefields of the future.
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Maj. Gen. Jeth Rey is director of the Network Cross-Functional Team, U.S. Army Futures Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Previously, he served as the communications, command and control director at the U.S. Central Command. Since joining the Army in 1983, he has served in enlisted, warrant and officer positions. He has three master’s degrees, in telecommunications management, national security studies and strategic studies.
Col. Cade Saie is the chief data officer for the Network Cross-Functional Team. He has three master’s degrees, in operations research, systems engineering and strategic studies, and holds a doctorate in operations research from the Air Force Institute of Technology.