Sascha Giese, Head Geek at software company SolarWinds, takes a look at how the advent of the digital age is transforming defence both on the battlefield and in the cyber realm.
Information wins battles, or even prevents them. This is nothing new; where there’s conflict, there’s military intelligence, and usually those who hold the most information are the most successful. Rule 101 of winning in combat situations is to protect key information and learn about the enemy and their plan. While information has always been used as a tool to gain the upper hand, it hasn’t always been regarded as a weapon itself.
But the advent of the fourth industrial revolution – the digital age – and our reliance on technological systems in every part of our work and personal lives means that this could change profoundly. Already, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a fundamental part of modern warfare – military systems equipped with AI can handle larger volumes of data far more efficiently. Not only are the systems more efficient but, thanks to the innate computing and decision-making capabilities of AI, self-control, regulation, and actuation of combat systems are improved. AI allows more action, in a shorter time frame, and decisions are purely based on facts.
This may still seem rather futuristic, but to be disruptive and enable the use of information within battleground scenarios, the systems that support the use of data and technology in the smartest way need to be digitally “on point.” Just as a tank must be effective to safely transport troops across dangerous landscapes, the systems that underpin information and the way it is used need to have the digital advantage to support the desired outcome. Equally, these systems must have fundamental security controls in place to help defend against threats, and it is therefore understandable that both are a key priority for organisations such as the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association (AFCEA).
Becoming digitally transformed
To achieve the kind of digital transformation that enables the defence sector to maximise technology and information in both attack and defence scenarios, the first vital step is for organisations to recognise their current position and identify what tools and services they need to best support their functions. This is especially important when looking at technology such as AI or blockchain. As already mentioned, while technologies like these hold considerable promise for security, efficiency, and ROI, it’s important to implement these for a specific use case and organisational need. Good news: technologies and processes proven in the private sector can easily be converted, and still apply in the defence sector.
Some practical ways to support the digital transformation process can include:
- Simplifying current IT – Complexity often leads to mistakes, longer processes, and increased costs across the board.
- Keeping IT flexible – Ensuring compatibility between on-premises and cloud platforms is crucial –hybrid environments are now the norm for many agencies.
- Maintaining IT resilience – Defence teams that need to run 24/7 should use systems that ensure both data availability and data protection. Having highly available, resilient data will be beneficial when adopting a cloud strategy.
- Creating a transformational culture – Units should consider how current operations might slow down a more rapid approach to continuous improvement. A change in culture, if not considered, could halt these strategies before they even begin. But changing the culture starts at the top. If commanders are unwilling to consider change, it’s likely that their subordinates are also resistant.
The second step requires IT leaders to consider implementing a transformation strategy that supports their goals. A vital part of this process involves enlisting the right people from within the organisation with expertise to guide the process and implement the best tools that can help enable visibility and management throughout the whole process. According to the SolarWinds® IT Trends Report 2019: Skills for Tech Pros of Tomorrow, in the next three to five years the top two skills tech professionals in the public sector plan to develop are security management (57%) and data science and analytics (39%).
Defending the defenders
To help protect agencies, employing a suite of solutions that can accurately detect anomalies originating both inside and outside the network is beneficial; these should include standard network monitoring and firewall solutions. Defence teams may also want to consider implementing automated patch management, user device tracking, access management, and other strategies that can provide true defence-in-depth capabilities.
The best form of defence is advanced preparation, which can be done by proactively working to strengthen network defence systems in anticipation of the next threat. Some practical steps to help achieve this include identifying and eliminating vulnerabilities, updating and testing security procedures, prioritising education, taking a holistic view of everyone’s roles, and implementing the proper procedures for when an attack happens. When you’re in a war zone, you don’t want to be held back by the risk of a cyberattack taking you offline.
Maintaining the balance between disruptive tech and procurement realities
While there are calls for innovation, agility, flexibility, simplicity, and better security, implementation of new technologies within the defence sector must take place within constraints posed by methodical procurement practices, meticulous security documentation, and sometimes-archaic network policies. This is often easier said than done. Migrating away from proven legacy technologies towards modern network solutions can be one of the most time-consuming and expensive endeavours facing the IT administrators managing their defence teams’ systems. Prolonged procurement processes and the need for training, different skillsets, and adjusted mindsets must all be considered.
Despite these challenges, modern systems can provide great benefits, and can create the foundation in preparation for future innovations. Though these will likely need to fit the mould of existing defence processes, the baseline will be in place to support ever more scalable and cutting–edge solutions that proactively support the use of information to defeat opponents and help with government cyber defence.
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