The US Department of Defense’s (DoD) Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) project is quite possibly its largest-ever IT modernisation programme. It will mean that data from all six US Armed Forces will be accessible in one platform, covering everything from fighter jets, submarines, and tanks, to even potentially individual troops in the field.
The intention behind the project is to provide the US Military with a significant advantage and offer commanders a greater insight into what is happening in both their field of operations and the wider operational context. But while the general concept may be simple enough to explain, the project itself remains complex.
On 13 May June, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin signed off the strategy for JADC2. While full details about what it contains have not yet been made public, that approval represented a significant step forward for the project. However, myriad hurdles remain.
At present, data sharing in the US Armed Forces is largely fragmented. Applications can vary between branches of the armed forces and there is little interoperability between computer systems. Then there are the varying operational requirements of each service.
Crucially, what has held JADC2 back is the absence of any tactical enterprise cloud solutions capable of meeting the considerable demands for data and bandwidth.
Justin Bronk, research fellow for airpower and technology in the Royal United Services Institute military sciences team, claims that the sheer volume involved in collecting all the data produced by an F35 fighter jet, for example, is ‘probably impossible from a bandwidth perspective.
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“You might be able to do it with laser comms or something, but even then, you’re talking about alignment problems. And you’re talking about a link that you might be able to establish temporarily for a specific purpose,” suggests Bronk. “But the idea that everything’s going to be able to share everything all the time is completely impossible for a whole host of bandwidth and physics-related reasons.”
Regardless of the challenges, the US Government is pushing ahead with the project, not least to avoid falling behind China in the technological arms race.
JEDI: a new hope
JADC2 aims to bring together data from sensors across all US armed forces in a single, free-flowing platform. But put simply, this will involve a colossal amount of data. And the technological capabilities to process and store so much data still require development for military use.
Delivery of JADC2 hinges on a robust, custom-built cloud platform. For some time, the $10bn Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud solicitation was perhaps the only hope, but it has been struck down by more legal problems than possibly imagined.
While Microsoft originally won a contract for JEDI in 2019, separate lawsuits from rivals Oracle and Amazon forced delays. There were also reports that Amazon claimed Microsoft received the contract due to alleged ill-feeling from ex-US President Donald Trump towards Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Lengthy legal battles rumbled on for almost three years before the US cancelled the contract entirely in July this year. This move is a clear sign that the US DoD sees JADC2 as a key priority for the military and is intent on pressing on.
Pentagon officials cited changing technical requirements as the reason behind the decision rather than the legal wrangling. “JEDI was developed at a time when the department’s needs were different and both the cloud service provider’s technology and our cloud conversancy was less mature,” said John Sherman, acting DoD chief information officer, in a statement.
“In light of new initiatives like JADC2 and AI and Data Acceleration (ADA), the evolution of the cloud ecosystem within DoD, and changes in user requirements to leverage multiple cloud environments to execute missions, our landscape has advanced and a new way-ahead is warranted to achieve dominance in both traditional and non-traditional warfighting domains.”
The Pentagon’s statement added the DoD’s intention for a new cloud platform, then announced the Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability (JWCC) as a ‘multi-cloud/multi-vendor indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract’. The department is now requesting proposals from a select number of parties for the JWCC, naming Microsoft and Amazon Web Services as potential cloud service providers (CSPs) with the capacity to meet the DoD’s technological demands.
Different tempos and cybersecurity
Edge computing may be invaluable in making JADC2 data collection more targeted and precise, just as the technology is starting to do for the Internet of Things. However, there will likely still be enormous amounts gathered under JADC2 due to the vast scale involved.
Bronk explains how it’s not just the sheer volume of potential data gathered that needs resolving, but also using one platform to cover the varying tempos of operations throughout the different branches of the military.
“There’s this phrase, ‘every soldier a sensor’. But if you want to take it to that degree, then you’re dealing with tens of thousands of assets at minimum. Potentially hundreds of thousands,” adds Bronk.
“And you’re also dealing with, frankly, a different tempo of operations. From the USAF at the top end, down through the US Navy at a slightly slower but more enduring pace in general, because they tend to do more rolling operations rather than the kind of pulses of activity, which the USAF will be doing – the high threat environment. And then you’ve got the army, which is constantly on the ground and moving around.
“They’re trying to marry up quite different scales and tempo of operations. And doing that in a unified command and control and data sharing architecture is going to be really challenging.”
In addition, there is the question of cybersecurity. A unified military platform would undoubtedly make an appealing target for cybercriminals. However, Bronk does not think there is any real danger of JADC2 becoming compromised.
“It creates more of a single point of failure type construct. On the other hand, much like nuclear command and control networks, it’s so obvious that they’re a top-end target that, one would hope, they’d have incredibly robust protection mechanisms and procedures,” says Bronk.
Another factor is that working with commercial partners means there is potential for cybercriminals to have existing knowledge of how these systems operate.
“The biggest problem for the military in terms of cyber vulnerabilities is where sensitive data is held by commercial systems or systems which utilise commercially available software. Because then it’s massively easier to know the sort of the language of the network. It’s a commercial system,” adds Bronk.
“It’s very different to going into custom military systems. Therefore, yes, it creates a single point of failure in a sense, but you’d hope it would be very difficult to penetrate. And if you did penetrate it, the penetration would be a very short duration.”