Army gets tactical with latest cloud pilot

The Army is in the last leg of a tactical cloud pilot that's experimenting with delivering capabilities and data to warfighters on the battlefield.

soldier in cloud data center

The Army is already seeing results from its experimental tactical cloud when it comes to virtual training -- and may even save money down the line.

"We've been talking about this type of capability of virtualizing training for years, and the big headache has always been that to train these soldiers we'd have to put a trainer on an airplane, spend a day traveling, and put them up at the training site," said Ken Lorentzen, chief engineer, Project Manager Mission Command (PM MC) for the Army's Program Executive Office for Command, Control, and Communications Tactical (PEO C3T).

"Ideally everybody that was supposed to be training showed up, and then they would have to leave and go someplace else to conduct the training," he said. "By virtualizing it … we can take a one-day course that takes three days to execute and do five of them in a week."

Lorentzen said virtualization saves money because there are fewer travel costs and training can be conducted in a compressed time frame. "That is paying dividends already, even though we haven't gotten to the end of the pilot," he said. "That capability will only get better."

This virtual training is part of the Army's Network Cross Functional Team's tactical cloud pilot that's experimenting with using cloud capabilities on battlefield networks.

Portia Crowe, chief data officer for the Army's Network Cross-Functional Team, which sits under Futures Command, told FCW this pilot was one of many launched by the Army's CIO office. This one, though, was specifically designed to address readiness and life-cycle efficiencies, improve cybersecurity posture and make data usable.

"But the main reason for this tactical pilot is that we wanted to look at the DOD cloud strategy as well as the Army cloud strategy and figure out what is the right data, where do we need that data, and when do we need that data," Crowe told FCW.

Crowe said the pilot aims to find and develop solutions to tactical operational needs. And since fiscal 2019, the team has worked with the Army's National Guard Mission Training Centers to develop concepts and designs, "trying to figure out what the right requirements are and then look at some of the industry solutions that are currently available."

The pilot program is working with an operational guard unit to meet its objectives this year: connectivity and guaranteeing a good user experience.

"The primary objective is to demonstrate that [with] the tactical systems, that we can provide a good user experience using a cloud provider and that we can establish the network connectivity that would be needed in order to demonstrate a collective training environment using established networks," said Robert Bathmann, tactical cloud pilot lead for the Mission Command Support Center (MCSC), PM MC for the PEO C3T.

And in doing that, Bathmann said they want to "reuse as much of the existing infrastructure as possible in terms of the software and services and make that available inside a cloud provider."

But there have been challenges along the way, particularly on the security front, said Flora Marshall, the MCSC product lead for PM MC, PEO C3T.

"One of the most critical pieces that we actually faced was the security part. It's hard to understand and know exactly what it is that you can actually put into the cloud because it's going to be connected to your network," Marshall said.

And as the technology becomes more ubiquitous in the field, the Army will adopt more monitoring tools to ensure security. Marshall said the units have been "documenting everything we're doing, making sure that we look at all the security boundaries and things that we have to do in order to secure it in the cloud."

Crowe said the team is also looking at secure remote access for users. "We're trying to simplify that process ... so instead of actually being on the physical servers, we can look at [doing] more remote services" so soldiers can be trained on software at their home stations or elsewhere.

The pilot is slated to end this summer but will continue in increments to gather feedback and incorporate that into the systems, Crowe said.

"We're going to work with the units to figure out what is worthwhile to keep expanding on this concept of using the cloud and in what areas. Is it training? Is it operational? And then what are the benefits that will help the user," Crowe said.