An imperative to modernize

John Sherman delivers a keynote at FedScoop's 2022 FedTalks conference. (DefenseScoop)

We face a pacing challenge in China that demands our utmost urgency, innovation, and teamwork to succeed.

In my role as the Department of Defense Chief Information Officer, I’m privileged to work with amazing colleagues from across DoD, industry, the interagency, and allied nations. This “team of teams” is our foundation to excel and win in the technology and cybersecurity space, which is playing an increasingly critical role our military’s ability to fight and win wars.

While we’ve made strides in areas like cloud computing, software development, cybersecurity, and command, control, and communication (C3), we must continue our urgent efforts in these domains. The Military Departments have shown the way with cloud computing with capabilities such as Cloud One, cArmy, and Black Pearl. Under the leadership of the Defense Information Systems Agency, we are laser-focused on ensuring the delivery of the enterprise-level Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC) by the end of this calendar year. So much depends on JWCC, from our ability to fully execute Joint All-Domain Command and Control to the promise of the Artificial Intelligence and Data Accelerator initiative at the Combatant Commands, state-of-the-art enterprise cloud capabilities across all security levels are essential.

Likewise, as we move out on implementation of our Software Modernization Strategy, we are building momentum with software development based on DevSecOps principles. As with so much else in DoD, we have a running start due to the work underway all across the enterprise, from the dozens of software factories to the push for continuous authority to operate (cATO), we are leaning forward with a purpose on this.

A successful Integrated Deterrence approach means that the Department is able to work across the whole of the U.S. Government and with allies and partners, to deter aggression across domains. In addition to the cloud capabilities, this concept requires robust and modern cybersecurity and C3 systems. The department’s cybersecurity foundation must be built on a Zero Trust (ZT) approach. While certainly not a new concept, we are pushing towards a level of ZT implementation that is unprecedented at DoD, with our ZT Portfolio Management Office is working with experts from across the Department to lay out our pathway to get ZT in place by 2027.

We are also pushing hard to make the Department, and the United States, a leader in 5G technologies. In the last year, DoD has vacated significant portions of the frequency spectrum for 5G providers to use in new and innovative ways. DoD has a number of 5G pilots underway to develop new and groundbreaking ways to integrate this leading-edge capability into our C3 systems.

All of this will further bolster our efforts to buy down 20+ years of technical debt that we’ve built up as we focused on combating violent extremists and not state-level adversaries. Our weapon systems and networks must be strengthened with the latest cryptography and modern software-defined equipment. Working with the Office of the Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, the National Security Agency, the Joint Staff J6, the Principal Cyber Advisor, the Director for Operational Test and Evaluation, and especially the Military Departments overseeing the various programs, we are moving with alacrity to ensure our Service Members are ready to face a sophisticated adversary with cyber-survivable platforms. Throughout, US Cyber Command/Joint Force Headquarters Department of Defense Information Network stands vigil around the clock ensuring the security of our networks and data.

Equal to the imperative in cybersecurity, is our work to enhance our C3 capabilities. This is an area with so many opportunities – such as leveraging commercial SATCOM, 5G and Next-G, mesh networks, new types of tactical data links, and new positioning, navigation, and timing sources to complement our gold-standard Global Positioning System. Still, we have much to do to prepare for our pacing challenge. This is probably most imperative with our work to strengthen Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, the combination of electronic warfare and spectrum management, which will be essential in any future conflict.

On all fronts, we’re relying on our industry partners – not only to drive innovations that we can take advantage of to benefit the warfighter, but also to prevent the theft of intellectual property critical to the security of our nation. Industry innovation in 5G and spectrum sharing will enable enhanced use of spectrum at home and abroad, industry sharing the lessons they’ve learned on their ZT journey will enable enhanced DoD cybersecurity, and more robust C3 capabilities require the expertise of our industry partners.

We know that our adversaries are targeting not just DoD, but also these partners and, as such, we want to truly collaborate with industry to benefit the cybersecurity posture of the United States. We’re working through the NSA Cybersecurity Collaboration Center, Defense Cyber Crime Center, and the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification program to facilitate increased industrial base cybersecurity. We’re so thankful for those industry partners who are leading the way.

Of course, all the technology in the world is useless without our people, and this includes our technology and cyber practitioners as well as our vast user community. This is our generation’s space race. We are committed to using every authority at our disposal, reinforced by new strategies and approaches, to have the most capable and diverse workforce possible. Talent is in demand everywhere, and the Department understands that not everyone is interested in a 30-year DoD career.

We must partner with industry, academia, Congress, and others to figure out ways to adapt to changing dynamics, recruit needed expertise, and enable new teammates to have different career paths and opportunities than their predecessors. The workforce must and will look like all of America, as we discard old paradigms to approach recruitment, retention, and upskilling with the same innovative drive that we’re pursuing cybersecurity technologies.

User experience enables mission success. Work delays created by dated hardware, insufficient transport, cyber security scans that secure but also clog up networks, and software that is not up to par is simply unacceptable. DoD has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading networks, remote collaboration tools, and new hardware, but there is significant work still to be done.

This is a multi-layered challenge that extends from the top of the enterprise all the way down to the post/base/installation level, but it is one that my peers and I are determined to get right. It is this user community, both in and out of uniform, who constitute our customer base and why we come to work every day. We have no higher obligation than to get all of this right for them.

John Sherman is the Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Department of Defense.