WASHINGTON — The U.S Army is rolling out a strategy focused on software, data and artificial intelligence practices, a move officials believe will clarify for industry what the service needs to transform into a high-tech, digital-forward force and how, exactly, it plans to get there.
The strategy, which will be unveiled during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, is meant to help “pivot our programs to adopt modern software practices, adopt data-centricity, and get us to artificial intelligence, machine learning and [figuring] out where the right applications of that are so that we can really enable commanders in the field to make data-driven, fast decisions,” Jennifer Swanson, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for data engineering and software, told Defense News in an interview ahead of the event.
Swanson’s title alone hints at the transformation underway for the Army’s acquisition branch. When she was hired earlier this year, she was chief systems engineer.
The strategy arrives as the Army conducts a massive overhaul of its virtual footprint and computer infrastructure in order to better prepare for potential conflicts with China and Russia. Those foreign powers — the two most pressing national security threats, according to a brief summary of the latest National Defense Strategy — invest significantly in military science and technology.
In a way, the new strategy is taking what industry does well and applies those best practices. Swanson said the Army is already doing some of this, but it must be done on a grander scale.
The old way of developing software began with requirements developers laying out what they want, and then having the software development community, usually through a contract award, take over to create something to satisfy the requirements. By the time the Army developed a solution years down the road, the software wouldn’t work well in the systems for which it was initially tailored.
Now, industry follows “agile software development,” Swanson said, which means the requirements developers, testers and cyber experts are all part of the development team. Working from a needs statement, the group starts coding in a sprint, which takes several weeks. Then, requirements developers review it to see if, in reality, it’s hitting the mark.
At the same time, as software undergoes development, it can run through an automated pipeline for testing and cyber scanning to check for vulnerabilities.
The thought is that a few sprints’ worth of code equates to a minimum viable product, Swanson said, “which is actually a delivery that you can start putting capabilities in the hands of users.” This can shrink development time down to weeks and months, rather than years.
One indicator of the strategy’s implementation will be the presence of modern software practices in outgoing requests for proposals. “We want good solutions, and we want companies that can do this and can be agile with us,” Swanson said, “so that as requirements change, they can evolve the solution.”
Part of the transformation strategy includes what the Army is calling data centricity — making information available to the right people “and not locking it in the systems,” Swanson explained.
“We have a lot of data that’s locked inside the systems that users can’t access, and so it really means exposing it, making it available with some kind of identity management,” she added.
The Army’s acquisition branch is developing a data mesh reference architecture as part of the strategy, Swanson noted, which “is kind of a new concept.” And while the Army will continue to use data fabrics, “data mesh will federate those fabrics.”
The data mesh reference architecture will “simplify the architecture,” she added. “Today we have a very hierarchical and complicated architecture.”
The bigger picture
Part of the reason the digital transformation strategy is now taking shape is due to Young Bang, the deputy acquisition chief, who was hired earlier this year. Bang brings with him an immense amount of technical know-how from industry as well as experience inside the Army and its institutions.
“The data mesh, that was his idea,” Swanson said. “He was pretty much instantly able to come in and be able to apply his technical expertise to what we do and what we need to do and figure out what the gaps are and figure out solutions.”
Clean, plentiful data is increasingly the lifeblood of U.S. military endeavors, especially as the services work to achieve the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control vision of seamless coordination across land, air, sea, space and cyberspace.
The Army’s contribution to JADC2 is Project Convergence, a weekslong evaluation of cutting-edge kit in demanding conditions. The service this year plans to test artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities as well as systems that quickly shuttle data.
The event, beginning in October and wrapping up in November, should provide lessons learned for both the battlefield and the headquarters.
“If there are things that come out of Project Convergence that indicate that there’s a better way, a different way, another way, we’ll take that all under consideration,” Swanson said. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to see, from an integration perspective, how all this stuff works. We’ll absolutely leverage that and whatever else is out there for us to learn.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.
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.