The perfect CIO storm

A convergence of challenges creates an opportunity for a new, more agile military

Attend enough defense briefings and industry information technology days, and it's easy to see how today’s military chief information officers — Air Force Lt. Gen. William Lord, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, Navy CIO Rob Carey and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. George Allen — are working their way through a perfect storm.

Their challenges are overwhelming in many ways. At the same time, the convergence of those challenges has resulted in a transformative moment in military history.

Of course, military history has had many such moments. New technologies — from steam-powered ships and reliable aircraft to satellite communications and unmanned aerial systems — have altered the ways wars are fought and won. This time is no different, although some of the challenges aren't like any the U.S. military has faced before.

A chief challenge is the sweeping way warfare has changed during the past two decades. Military leaders have needed to dramatically reorient our armed forces from a military that excelled at unleashing overwhelming force on enemy nations to one that must now confront hidden adversaries who have little regard for borders or civilian lives.

As Navy Undersecretary Robert Work told a ballroom full of defense industry executives in April: “We’re just coming to grips” with the demands of asymmetrical warfare.

A second challenge is just as significant and arguably more vexing: the growing seriousness, scale and scope of cyber assaults on military networks and vital U.S. assets.

The prolonged delay surrounding the nomination of Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander to lead the Defense Department's new Cyber Command, in many regards, reflects the daunting ambiguities officials face in confronting threats in cyberspace. For example, how does the military separate the work of international cyber criminals from threats to national security? How does it ascertain who and where those threats are coming from? When can it respond with force and in what manner?

Again, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, in concert with the Cyber Command, are still in their formative stages in dealing with a new generation of combatants in a domain that remains new and unfamiliar.

Of course, the third challenge is the long-haul task of consolidating hundreds of military networks and breaking down decades of institutionalized practices to create a global network that can deliver information to and from any network device.

That is even more challenging because acquisition reforms have failed to fix the military’s procurement problems, especially the need to buy information technology in much faster cycles.

And finally, there’s the challenge of trying to make these huge technology leaps when IT budgets have been cut dramatically relative to the task at hand.

Combine those challenges, and one begins to understand why the military must take bolder, more transformational steps toward developing not only secure, interoperable enterprise networks but also, ultimately, a new military capability: true, real-time agility.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of Defense Systems from January 2009 to August 2010. He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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