DoD CIO Outlines Plans to Safeguard Data Amidst Conflict
CIO John Sherman points to zero trust, new cloud partnership as keys to operational success
As the Russia-Ukraine war makes clear, the utility, accessibility and security of data is a crucial element of modern military conflict. And as the Department of Defense’s leaders monitor the fighting in Ukraine, they do so with an eye toward applying their data-related learnings and observations toward potential future conflicts—specifically the prospect of a war with China.
“War with China is neither inevitable nor desirable, and what we must ensure is that every morning when they wake up in Beijing at the national leadership level, they say ‘Not today,’” said John Sherman, chief information officer at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). “Whether you’re in industry or government, ‘Not today’ should be your mantra.”
What are the steps to improving the readiness and resilience of DoD’s data operation?
Sherman touched on several initiatives during remarks at the GEOINT 2023 Symposium in St. Louis:
Zero Trust. Sherman said DoD is preparing to implement a new approach to network security called “Zero Trust,” which is based on the assumption that bad actors have already penetrated DoD network. Rather than a traditional castle-and-moat approach to cybersecurity, in which the emphasis is on keeping bad actors from gaining access to the network, a zero-trust approach aims to prevent sophisticated adversaries from moving laterally within the network once they’ve gained access. Sherman said zero-trust implementation will take place by 2027.
When USGIF CEO Ronda Schrenk asked Sherman how recent U.S. intelligence leaks were affecting the country’s approach to balancing security with the value of sharing intelligence broadly, Sherman said that while DoD is examining its credentialing and access policies, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has specifically directed him not to “turn the rheostat too far” in a way that would inhibit communication and collaboration.
Quantum Security. Quantum computing hasn’t yet reached a stage of maturity where it’s impacting operations—but it’s coming, noted Sherman, and among its capabilities is exceptional cryptographical capabilities. In response, Sherman said DoD is partnering with the National Security Agency and other partners to develop quantum-resistant encryption.
The goal is “to make sure we have the right cryptography that can stand up to very sophisticated capabilities our state adversaries could throw at us,” Sherman said, promising “we move heaven and earth to get this done.”
Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability. Sherman also touted a DoD initiative announced last December, in which DoD is partnering with Amazon Web Services, Google Support Services, Microsoft, and Oracle to provide cloud-computing capabilities to warfighters, including those operating at the edge of a conflict. Sherman pointed to the example of an amphibious vehicle transporting warfighters for a beach assault to illustrate how forward-deployed forces could access data provided through the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC) program.
Edge Access. Cloud computing, of course, requires data access, as do capabilities such as GPS and Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) services. Sherman mentioned the integration of several programs and technologies ranging from low-earth satellite communications, undersea cables and high-frequency communications, and a litany of other capabilities aimed at ensuring that U.S. and allied forces retain access even in the face of enemy attacks.
Sherman said DoD is focused on developing “redundant and backup capabilities, realizing that in a conflict, GPS and PNT may be the first things that an enemy takes a shot at—kinetically or non-kinetically.”
On Orbit. Sherman said that efforts to enhance satellite function while the satellites are in orbit, has the potential to provide a crucial operational advantage to U.S. forces, and had a word of encouragement for staff from commercial-satellite companies at the USGIF conference: “Keep going.”
Yet Sherman followed that up with a note of caution related to including “cybersecurity on those capabilities, whether it’s on the downlink, whether it’s on the [transmission security] between satellites and relays or wherever it is—we must apply cybersecurity principles to what we’re doing on space.”
Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning. Sherman acknowledged that in the wake of surprising behaviors from AI programs such as ChatGPT, some leaders have cause for temporarily pausing AI/ML development. He said such an approach isn’t right for DoD, “because I’ll tell you who’s not going to take a knee, is the People’s Republic of China and Russia.”
Still, Sherman signaled that DoD would be careful in its approach to the technology, balancing the imperative to “create decision advantage for our warfighters” with ethics and in ways that comply with the U.S.’ “democratic values.”
Data and information, including geospatial intelligence, matter more than ever to modern military conflict. The pace of innovation is such that Sherman closed his remarks by telling the GEOINT audience that the best way to honor the industry’s data-science pioneers was by their actions: “by how fast we’re going to move and how restless we’re going to be. Because our warfighters demand no less.”
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