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COMMENTARY

How emerging tech can help the Navy achieve its information superiority vision

Earlier this year, the Navy released its strategic plan for IT modernization. Titled “Information Superiority Vision,” the report offered a stark assessment of the Navy’s current networks, systems and processes, saying the sea service “lacks a mastery of its Information Environment.” Furthermore, its “antiquated systems are inadequate” protection against cybersecurity threats.

The report’s findings aren’t surprising. The Navy’s IT systems were designed in the 1990s, and according to Navy CIO Aaron Weis, the service is “15 years behind where private industry is.” Even ubiquitous capabilities like cloud collaboration, file sharing, voice and video services aren’t available to personnel, who instead work around systems to get their jobs done.

How the Navy fell behind

Finding funds to upgrade old, but still operational, IT applications is difficult. Yet the more antiquated naval IT systems are, the more likely they are to hit a breaking point, compromising the mission and the warfighter.

Another hurdle to modernization is that the network perimeter has shifted dramatically. The adoption of cloud computing and a move towards remote work have eliminated the notion of the network as fully enclosed within a building, installation or warship. This increases the attack surface exponentially. “As technology changes, our network no longer forms a linear battlespace simply defended by a Maginot line of firewalls,” the report warned. Unfortunately, in the spirit of serving the mission and keeping IT operations running secure and smoothly, this “keeping the lights on” mentality has stymied innovation.

Compounding these factors, the Navy also faces challenges in recruiting, developing and retaining an effective information workforce, with many talented IT staff moving to roles offering more growth opportunities and compensation.

Finding a fix

Although the report doesn’t fully detail how the Navy will overcome its deficiencies, there are some clear areas of emphasis, including improving cybersecurity, increasing adoption of cloud computing and updating network architectures.

Addressing these challenges and opportunities is no small feat. To set itself on the path to information superiority and organize around its three key premises -- modernize, innovate and defend -- the Navy must make adjustments and build on its past capabilities.

Naval leaders don’t have to boil the ocean, though. Retrofitting the entire IT infrastructure is costly and unrealistic. Instead, the department must identify and prioritize areas of critical importance and carve out resources within IT centers of excellence to focus on evaluating new technology and developing software solutions continuing to move the mission forward.

For instance, many of the workloads and activities burdening IT administrators can be streamlined and simplified with automation. On the network side, software-defined networking (SDN) can automate many of the tasks involved in provisioning, monitoring and management -- ensuring the seamless flow of information, enabling agile scaling and hardening security.

To generate information power, artificial intelligence and machine learning can be leveraged to automatically analyze and contextualize massive amounts of data, freeing sailors and marines from the repetitive, manual investigation and analysis and helping them achieve more decisive outcomes quicker.

To deploy new capabilities at speed while reducing dependency on costly physical hardware, cloud computing and containerization strategies must be identified. These technologies also enable the flexible scaling of systems and applications to meet the needs of the mission and bring much-needed resiliency and operational agility to critical IT infrastructures within the constructs of aging legacy technology.

Developing a culture of information readiness

On the path to modernization, technology is only half the battle. To accelerate innovation, there must also be a cultural shift.

As the Navy’s dependency on IT grows, the same preparedness and rigor personnel exhibit in the military theaters must also be applied to the IT environment. The Navy is aiming to develop a “transformative workforce” that is “continuously learning, always advancing,”  the report stated.

This means training military and civilian personnel so everyone becomes a cyber sentry, ready and prepared to combat threats and vulnerabilities. Furthermore, to retain and nurture skilled personnel, those with the right skills must be identified and promoted.

To reduce re-work and increase efficiencies, centers of excellence will share innovations and solutions enterprise wide.

The imperative of information superiority

Today’s battlefront has extended beyond the physical frontlines. Future conflicts will take place at sea, onshore and across cyberspace. To adapt and outmaneuver its adversaries, the Navy is beginning to make the right moves to ensure its forces have the communications and real-time data they need to orient, decide and act. After all, it doesn’t matter how well-equipped frontline fighters are. If the IT infrastructure isn’t in prime fighting condition, then the mission and even lives may be compromised.

About the Author

Brandon Shopp is the vice president of product strategy at SolarWinds.

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