Adopting new technologies and embracing digital transformation is a continuous process for everyone in the Industry 4.0 era, and the defense sector is no different. In 2019, the Department of Defense released its Digital Modernization Strategy, which highlighted four key strategic initiatives: Innovation for advantage, optimization, resilient cybersecurity, and cultivation of talent.

In order to achieve a competitive advantage and increase efficiency, defense forces must modernise their WAN to move data at greater speeds and scale. IP/MPLS may be the clear choice given its resiliency, multiservice support and ability to provide secure communications. However, WAN needs to use automation for high network agility, especially as the defense industry adopts new innovations for command, control and communication (C3) capabilities.

Army-technology spoke with Scott Robohn, CTO for Nokia Federal Solutions, about C3 modernization and network automation in the defense industry.

According to Robohn, although there is always a mixture of perspectives, overall there has been no active resistance to adopting automation.

“The defense industry has quite a track record for adopting new technology in many different forms to support their missions. Automation is sought out as a tool to increase mission effectiveness,” he explains.

That said, modernization is a broad term and the transition to innovation as par for the course can be a lot of work. Within the industry, there is the risk of an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude slowing down modernization efforts.

Robohn explains: “Modernization presents a bigger set of challenges. For example, you may have a technology that’s widely deployed and still works, still performing as required. Efficiency gains through modernization may not be enough to justify or motivate the modernization effort, such as reducing rackspace and power consumption by 75% or more, especially as it may be hard to get to all the places where that technology (or equipment based on that technology) is deployed.”

As modernization and digital uptake are in many ways inevitable, the longer change is resisted; the more work it creates in the long run. As command, control and communications are key aspects of defense operations, it is essential that C3 modernization is an ongoing process.

“Because technology advances, there can be an increasing risk of not modernizing. Over time, we see specific expertise go away (through SMEs who retire, especially with specificities hardware expertise) and a decreasing supply of replacement components. This is especially for some communications technologies, that reach their end-of-support but are still in use.”

Five key benefits of network automation

So what does network automation offer the defense industry? The first benefit is consistency. Once automated, a process can be repeatedly executed in the exact same manner, which leads to predictability and ease of troubleshooting. Secondly, there is a reduced risk of error; assuming a process is programmed and automated correctly, even if there is an error that only shows up in very specific conditions, automated routines can be modified to account for the flaw.

Automation also allows for greater innovation. The act of thinking through a process and understanding why it’s done a certain way can lead to much more effective and efficient processes, which directly falls in line with The Department of Defense’s first modernization strategy initiative.

By moving to more automated processes, you remove humans from the “Click OK To Continue” loop and reduce delays associated with human cognition, leading to overall increased velocity in operations. Additionally, this frees people’s time up to work on more creative and challenging issues. Many people, especially network engineers, want to learn new things and routinize the mundane and repetitive tasks. Robohn cites Hackathons as a prime of example of nurturing talent and encouraging innovation. These events bring together a cross-functional team of network engineers for multi-day events focused on automating repetitive tasks.

5G’s role in automation and C3 modernization

An advantage of 5G is its ability to provide slices, which are virtual network partitions that contain dedicated resources in order to consistently meet specific requirements, such as bandwidth, security and latency, of the given application. Slices can be quickly created and deleted as missions are launched and completed.

“5G commercial adoption is well underway and will increase over the next 3-5 years,” Robohn explains. “And 5G network slicing is heavily dependent on automation.

“There are significant improvements with 5G that are going to allow for new applications, such as augmented reality and virtual reality. Not only does this give carriers new opportunities for revenue, but it also gives defense consumers the ability to use those applications for remote training applications and remote control of autonomous vehicles. One of the particular design goals for 5G centres on providing ultra-reliable low-latency communications.

In 2020, Nokia rolled out the world’s first automated 4G/5G network slicing within RAN, transport and core domains, including new network management, controller and orchestration capabilities.

“Nokia has done a great job of building a robust and complete end-to-end portfolio for 5G networking. Automation and orchestration of the separate network domains (Radio network, IP and Optical transport, and cloud data centre services) is complex, and Nokia has the tools and expertise to do this well. These are all very critical to accomplish dynamic 5G slicing.”

WAN automation is a necessary component for DoD’s Digital Modernization Strategy; it provides greater agility that matches increasing needs for greater speed and scale. As DoD looks to 5G, WAN automation is a must-have to get the most out of 5G Network Slicing and other key 5G features.