Pentagon Leaders Discuss Challenges of Moving Data To and From the Tactical Edge

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Officials described their goals as they begin implementing the DOD’s enterprisewide data strategy.

As the Defense Department shifts to become the data-centric organization laid out in its enterprisewide data strategy, data leaders across the department and the services are working through questions related to how to keep information flowing from the enterprise level to the tactical level and vice versa. 

The ability to move information “wrapped in cybersecurity” to the tactical edge—giving warfighters actionable data—is a driving goal behind the data strategy and the Pentagon’s Digital Modernization Strategy, released in 2019, according to data officials speaking at a FedInsider webinar Wednesday. But, currently available communications technologies are a limiting factor. 

Dr. Clark Cully, DOD’s acting deputy chief information officer, used 5G as an example of an emerging technology capable of facilitating movement of information to the tactical edge. 

“Our [command, control, and communications] team is investing heavily in the industry and international consortia to ensure that cybersecurity and zero trust are fundamental components of how the wider global industry of 5G manufactures those technologies to ensure their integrity, so that we can source components from a variety of suppliers and not be concerned about backdoors or other vulnerabilities,” Cully said. 

Communications infrastructure in environments without ready access to traditional networking capabilities restricts data flows from the edge to the enterprise, according to Tom Sasala, chief data officer for the U.S. Navy. Sasala indicated this means data leaders at DOD need to think about what kind of information gets selected to flow back and forth. 

“Just recently at the CENTCOM Data Symposium … I made the point of saying that data is contextual in nature, right, so not all pieces of information that are generated at the tactical, not all pieces of information generated in the enterprise need to flow across each side,” Sasala said. 

Sasala also detailed his work standing up the Navy’s data organization. Sasala is the department’s first CDO, and he said over the last 18 months the Navy has struggled to establish a data management program. 

The Navy's focus needed to shift from a narrow view encompassing business systems to a holistic approach, Sasala said. Shifting gears and ramping up data governance activities has involved establishing a variety of new data roles throughout the service’s hierarchy. 

These roles include associate data officer positions, which support command and control as well as day-to-day data management. Two other data governance roles—a data storage position and functional data manager roles—will support policymaking and implementation around data, Sasala said. 

“We have a governance forum that we run monthly now,” Sasala said. “We’ve actually appointed … deputy data officers for the Navy and the Marine Corps so we have a kind of triad where the secretariat, where I sit, and then the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps each have a data officer,” Sasala said. 

Now, the Navy is beginning to implement its data architecture, which was developed last year, with the goal of taking data from authoritative sources and placing them in integrated, secure locations to enhance decision-making, Sasala said. 

Implementing the data architecture—which includes Jupiter, the Navy’s enterprise data environment launched in April 2020—will allow the Navy to enhance security through advanced access controls, thereby improving security while keeping data accessible. Ultimately, Sasala hopes to be able to do risk adaptive access control, which will allow for real-time permissions adjustments. 

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