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Equipping Warfighters Requires Tech, Personnel and Innovation

Pentgon tech officials say modernization and recruiting quickly is critical to staying ahead of adversaries.

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DOD Chief Software Officer Rob Vietmeyer
DOD Chief Software Officer Rob Vietmeyer speaks at the Feb. 9 Defense IT Summit in Arlington, Virginia. Photo Credit: Capitol Events Photography

The Defense Department needs to modernize technology, support staff and environments to maintain a warfighting advantage, leading IT officials from the military services said Wednesday at AFCEA TechNet Cyber in Baltimore.

“We have to put the lens of the warfighter,” said Department of the Navy CIO Jane Rathbun. “The end state is that a warfighter has information at the ready securely delivered from anywhere to anywhere, where they need it.”

The speed of warfighters’ decision-making is at the forefront of the modernization needs of DOD, said DOD Chief Software Officer Rob Vietmeyer. He said that secure environments need to be created with zero-trust principles to deliver usable information to the tactical edge as quickly as possible.

“We are modernizing from the network infrastructure, building in zero trust,” Vietmeyer said. “We’re going have to be able to have data coming off of sensor platforms from the Navy and from the Air Force, and then potentially sending that to shooters that need an instantaneous flow of information.”

In the National Guard’s mission, supporting local communities requires secure and interoperable environments for information to travel between National Guard Members and local responders, according to Kenneth McNeill, National Guard CIO and director of the Command, Control, Communications & Computers (C4) Systems Directorate. Zero trust, he said, needs to be a bedrock for those environments.

“When you’re supporting a first responder or non-government agency, you still have to communicate, you still have to be interoperable,” McNeill said. “You have to secure to that. We spend a lot of time getting our zero-trust plan right and working those [zero-trust] tools and capabilities to make sure that we are we are not the risk.”

Secure Modern Tech Environments Are Needed

Enabling warfighters to make decisions quickly also requires modernization toward systems that can be adaptable, agile and secure. Vietmeyer cited the evolution of the Ukraine-Russia war as an example of a changing and expanding environment that require modern and future technology.

“Ukraine started off on the cyber side then rapidly moved into air attacks, then into 19th century trench warfare, and then into drone warfare and then into electromagnetic spectrum warfare.” Vietmeyer said. “The next conflict is not going to be the same as the last.”

Network modernization needs to be adaptable for forces to be able to make decisions, Rathbun said.

“How do we get out of [an outdated] paradigm and move to a paradigm that that is more agile, is simpler and more secure by default?” Rathbun noted.

Winston Beauchamp, deputy CIO at the Department of the Air Force, said that the military services need nimble systems to work across environments, including with industry and international partners.

“We’ve had a network that is responsible for operating and maintaining an F-15, another one for the F-35, another one for the F16,” Beauchamp said. “What we have come to realize is that sophisticated adversaries are not going to respect our boundaries, and that they can slow down our forces by shutting down businesses.”

Industry’s role continues to evolve as technology does, the officials said. Cooperation gives both industry and government more flexibility to innovate and deliver on mission quicker, Vietmeyer said.

“We’re starting to have blended teams. If we need to move fast, we can’t do the traditional model of, ‘Hey, we’re going to spend two years when we want to, let’s put this out on the screen,’” Vietmeyer said. “Industry has spent a couple of years delivering under pressure. You need to have industry and government operating together.”

Winning the Race for Talent

The officials cited recruiting, hiring and retaining tech talent as key parts to keeping pace with adversaries and allies. Industry can play a role in winning the “race for talent” in the military services and across DOD, Rathbun said.

“Working and partnering with the industry [can contribute to] the education and upskilling piece of our current workforce,” Rathbun said. “I think that certifications and learning segments are our future in this in this field because of the opportunity.”

While retention and upskilling are critical to the workforce, the cyber talent shortage is exacerbated by the long time it takes to hire, Vietmeyer said. Getting the right people into the jobs supporting warfighters is taking too long, he said.

“We can work with our HR departments to ask, ‘How do we optimize? Why is it taking eight months to a year?’” Vietmeyer said. “We ‘re losing critical talent now because it’s taking us too long to get them. It’s something we need to address immediately.”

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