WASHINGTON — The coming year will be one of great consequence for the U.S. Army and its goal of streamlining and insulating its sensitive networks, according to service leaders.
The Army describes 2024 as the time when its unified network and related operations, known as UNO, coalesce. The unified network of the future aligns the tactical links of deployed forces with the larger, less-mobile systems used at headquarters. It also reaches into the cloud, leveraging the digital ether to deliver data wherever it is most needed.
The seamless combination promises global connectivity — reflecting the scale at which the Defense Department expects to fight its next wars — and fewer isolated pathways to monitor, ultimately promoting cybersecurity. But the end goal is dependent on the Army and its commercial suppliers checking many moving boxes.
“UNO is our way of seeing the network,” Mark Kitz, the leader of the Army’s Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, told C4ISRNET in an interview. “What is our radio configuration? What is our cybersecurity posture? Where are all my routers and my firewalls? UNO is a program to consolidate all of those configurations into one core platform.”
The office, which is tasked with developing, deploying and supporting soldiers’ communications gear, spearheads UNO maturation. The organization took control of Program Executive Office Enterprise Information Systems’ network-heavy assignments at the start of October. They included the integrated enterprise network, base emergency communications system, wideband enterprise satellite systems, and enterprise identity, credential and access management.
“Identity and access management is a huge emphasis, for both tactical and enterprise, and we both have disparate efforts,” Kitz said. “How we consolidate that and get to a holistic network is going to be a fun endeavor for me for the next year.”
Improved networking and enhanced digital defenses are among the half-dozen modernization priorities the Army defined years ago. Others include revamping aged aviation capabilities and improving missile defense technology.
Pressure to succeed with comprehensive connectivity mounted at this year’s Association of the U.S. Army convention in Washington, where Army leadership named the network the No. 1 focus area.
In the wake of the conference, Kitz’s office published a request for information for UNO. In it, the Army highlighted its latest approach: competitive prototyping jump-started by existing commercial methods.
Responses to the RFI are due in December and could lead to multiple deals.
“Any Fortune 500 company has a really diverse network they’ve got to operate. Maybe they’re not configuring radios, but they’ve got routers, they’ve got range extension, they’ve got all of these capabilities in their network that is really diverse,” Kitz said. “So what I’m trying to do is [identify] what is a logical starting point for our program. How do I leverage commercial? How do I leverage what Fortune 500 companies are doing and apply that to our military problem?”
The UNO pursuit is critical to realizing multidomain operations, the Army’s ability to fight and win in any environment with the aid of allies, according to RFI documents.
“We’ve always wanted to just see ourselves very accurately so that we can understand when there is a threat,” said Lt. Gen. Maria Barrett, the leader of Army Cyber Command. “If we understand there is a vulnerability on the network, we understand where to go, what to do, how to close it, how to mitigate it very quickly and at speed.”
UNO employs a common suite of software and zero-trust principals. The latter, a relatively new cybersecurity paradigm, assumes networks are already jeopardized and, thus, calls for the constant validation of users, devices and virtual access. The Defense Department is expected to institute basic levels of zero trust across the organization by 2027.
The Army’s zero-trust office and the service’s Network Cross-Functional Team, among others, are contributing to UNO’s realization, according to the force.
“The unified network is absolutely a game changer in terms of getting us further down there, converging all those federated, separate networks the Army has had and bringing them into a centrally delivered service provider, which will be Network Enterprise Technology Command, with Army Cyber [Command] taking a look at the cybersecurity aspect of it,” Barrett said.
“The network starts to continually converge, converge, converge,” she added. “We get to see it, to include the tactical space, and now we can respond to threats at a speed that we haven’t been able to before.”
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.