NASHVILLE, Tn. — Creating a data fabric will be a key part of modernizing the Army’s holistic network — from the tactical space all the way to the enterprise, according to service officials.

“I want to develop a true data fabric,” Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, director of the Network Cross Functional Team, said here during a Dec. 2 technical exchange meeting. At the daylong event, Army network officials discussed the service’s needs for the newest batch of network technology and met with industry.

A data fabric is not a single solution, but rather, a federated environment that allows information-sharing among various forces and echelons.

Getting the right data to the right decision maker or unit at the right time without overburdening them is a key tenet for future combat, top DoD officials assert. It is a critical piece of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative, the department’s high-priority warfighting concept that aims to more seamlessly connect sensor information to shooters.

“The areas that you’ll hear about that interest me the most personally from the JADC2 fight is going to be on data fabric,” said Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, director for command, control, communications, and computers/cyber and chief information officer for the Joint Staff, which is spearheading the JADC2 effort. “I’m really excited on the advancements we’re making in that.”

The operational community, through a variety of recent experiments with emerging network equipment and key deployments, have provided lessons on what they need from a data and data fabric perspective to achieve their missions.

The 82nd Airborne Division, which deployed to Afghanistan to assist with the drawdown after 20 years of combat, needed a data fabric to provide a commander’s decision tool, according to Lt. Col. Will Martin, the division’s chief of communications. He compared the fabric to a single pane of glass.

“It’s got the COP, which is common operational picture, it’s got the intel picture, the CIP, it talks battle damage assessments and it brings in our sustainment footprint, which is critical to the large-scale operational fight,” he said.

During operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, the division didn’t have access to the right data at the right time, Jock Padgett, the division’s chief technology officer, said. Because there were many disparate systems, the division couldn’t visualize where they were in time and space. It was also challenging for other military elements to see what capabilities were on aircraft to guide landing priority, Padgett added.

An additional challenge is troops likely will head into environments with limited access to data. One official equated this to infantry units having three day supplies of water, food and ammunition when going on missions.

“Once he enters that denied environment, how do we enable him to have that three-day supply forward with the data analytic tools for him to be self sufficient and continue the mission that he’s been given?” said Brig. Gen. Charles Masaracchia, commander of the Mission Command Center of Excellence. “We’re looking at how to match data analytics to leader decisions and then enable these tools with the right data.”

Masaracchia said the service faces four main data challenges:

  • Knowing what data is available;
  • Being able to access data;
  • Having the right tools to conduct analysis
  • Properly visualizing the results

“Operationalizing data and data analytics will require looking at how we deliver that capability within a contested environment,” he said. “I think that is a real piece that we’re looking at right now from my organization is to deliver inside of those four kinds of environments in [Denied, Degraded, Intermittent, or Limited Bandwidth environments] and how will we provide it forward and keep them operationally self sufficient to continue their mission.”

Building the data fabric

As the Army is looking to craft its data fabric, it plans to mix and match existing systems and specific commercial and technology solutions to close gaps.

The Army has seen some success at events such as the most recent Project Convergence and Joint Warfighter Assessment 21 regarding interoperability and moving data among echelons, joint and coalition partners, according to Col. Matthew Paul, project manager for mission command within program executive office command, control, communications-tactical.

“Over the next couple of years, my team and I will embark on what I refer to as data ops, iterating solutions and optimizing our capability until we get it right, or at least until we find that sweet spot,” Paul said of the Army’s data fabric. “At the end of the day, the goal is to be able to maximize the value of the data that we have within our ecosystem.”

He added that the Army wants to adopt an incremental approach beginning in 2021 under the service’s capability set model. This approach, which operates on two-year cycles, seeks to create a baseline of technology and insert advancements they arrive. Capability Set ‘21 was focused on infantry brigades, ‘23 on Strykers and ‘25 will focus on armored units.

The Army has also demonstrated Project Rainmaker, a science and technology effort helping the service explore the concept of a tactical data fabric. Officials have said it has been helpful in allowing the Army to understand the blueprint so it can start to translate that into the procurement phase and find the balance between commercial solutions and government technology.

The plan for the data fabric is to achieve an initial operating capability for data management for Capability Set ‘23, along with a bridge between the enterprise data ecosystem and the tactical data ecosystem.

The enterprise environment consists of nodes that operate around the clock, Paul said, with a lot of data inside. The tactical environment is comprised of notes that subscribe to various computing environments within the common operating environment. These tactical nodes are episodic, which means they are turned off and on, almost like an Internet of Things.

“My challenge is how do I get the right data to the right place at the right time to enable the mission?” he said. “I think the answer, at least for CS 23, is to establish a middle layer in my architecture, leveraging a lot of the capability and infrastructure that I already have, and manage within my mission command support center. But building on top of that with new services and new tools to enable things like more efficient data ingest and egress as well as data persistence.”

Capability Set ‘21 currently has Rainmaker 0.5 and includes current data management of the Command Post Computing Environment, a web-enabled system that will consolidate mission systems and programs into a single user interface.

Capability Set ‘23 is slated to evolve to Rainmaker 1.0 with basic analytics, governance and standards and initial enterprise to tactical data federation with structured, semi-structured and un-structured data. Capability Set ‘25 is expected to move to Rainmaker 2.0 with advanced analytics — involving artificial intelligence and machine learning — full enterprise to tactical data federation and significantly increased capacity for ingress, egress and persistence.

Paul said it’s critical to link this work to the new joint warfighting concept, especially as it applies to establishing common data standards.

“If we fail to adhere to these standards, then our data fabric will become brittle or clunky. That would be the best case scenario. The worst case scenario would be that our data fabric could break,” he said. “These common data standards here, at least from an Army perspective, is what will knit our data fabric together.”

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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