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Combat: Tackling data challenges and opportunities at the tactical level

Michael Crowley, EMEA Director Public Sector, VMware

One of the greatest challenges faced by military commanders is that of communications. Clear and concise exchange of information has always been vital to any successful operation but none more so than in modern times where the digitisation of warfare and advances in technology are combining to exert greater pressure on how, when and where information is exchanged.

So much so that it is the topic of our latest edition of The Vauban Papers – a series of publications dedicated to the impact of digital transformation on the Armed Forces and the conduct of operations, published by CEIS in partnership with VMware.

A booming communications category

The global tactical military communications market, which comprises airborne, naval, man-portable, vehicular and stationary, is set to see substantial growth over the coming decade. According to market analysis by GlobalData, by the end of 2028, the sector will be worth $151bn globally. This growth is driven largely by demand for man-portable innovations, which account for more than a third of the market (38%).

In this McKinsey report from summer 2020, ‘Lessons from the military for COVID-time leadership’, one of the focus points is, ‘communicate succinctly and create a single source of information’. In the summary the author cites, “the best military leaders take personal responsibility for ensuring that they have the essential information, which then takes on predictive meaning as it is analysed.” Indeed, in the UK MoD’s recently published Data Strategy for Defence report, the number one point is ‘addressing the data challenge for defence’.

Satellites to smartphones

Combat relies on the continuous, near real-time sharing of data collected on the battlefield, which can be vast. This information is used to take the best possible decisions and facilitate the planning and collaborative conduct of operations. The aim is to generate the most accurate and complete view of the operational situation, by identifying both friendly and enemy troop positions. Today, that entails everything from satellites to smartphones.

The benefits are clear. Improved communications means greater efficiencies in operation speed and impact. Ever-changing situations can be updated and reacted to accordingly and as a result, safety and understanding of threats and risks is improved. Ultimately, it can help save lives. Yet it also brings challenges in the form of an increased dependence on technology to connect and control assets and troops – something susceptible to enemy attack, which can damage, corrupt or expose data and information systems. Similarly, natural conditions may block or limit the use of communication tools.

It means advanced defence forces are exploring new avenues when it comes to communication.

Equipping our soldiers at the edge

For this, look no further than the consumer technology sector. While it differs entirely from the military, there are many solutions that can be adapted. In particular, we’re seeing an adoption of edge computing, which consists in collecting and processing data locally, as close as possible to the user, by integrating processing capabilities into devices like iPhones or wearables. In practice, this would mean that individual and collective equipment have their own storage and computing capacities to function autonomously, no matter the circumstances.  As a result it  also increases forces resilience on the ground by the nature of not relying on centralised systems.

Gartner predicts that 75% of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed outside the traditional, centralised data center or cloud by next year. At the Defence and Security Equipment International conference held recently in London. Gen, Sir Patrick Sanders highlighted the importance of edge technology in order to compete with adversaries Russia and China. And given the potential impact it can have, it’s not hard to see why.

Equipping our soldiers with edge computing capabilities will drastically reduce the volume of exchanges and exposure to latency – not all data is sent back to a central server. It will also strengthen cyber security in the process – the decentralised nature of edge computing makes it more difficult to neutralise all the edge devices simultaneously. Because edge computing is modular, armed forces can tailor resources according to their needs, locations and mission parameters.  At an operational level, the use of edge computing allows for much greater mobility as troops are less dependent on the network, greater speed in mission execution, with local data processing and improved flexibility with faster reconfiguration of devices, and less reliance on centralised instances.

The sharp edge of technology

Despite the benefits of adopting edge computing, there are major challenges at a technical, operational and human level. From a technical perspective, devices must be developed to cope with extreme geographical scenarios and practical constraints like size or weight. Cybersecurity is also critical, both in ensuring equipment remains safe for troops in the event of loss or capture by the enemy and in controlling the  traceability of supply chains to monitor sensitive equipment and components. The network must also be capable of continuity if one or multiple parts fail.

When it comes to operations, the equipment must not hinder missions or stand out to enemy detection. Similarly, to be truly effective, edge computing must have an offensive role too with an ability to reduce or eliminate adversary operational capabilities. At a human-level, it goes without saying that, irrespectively of their level, troops must be able to use the equipment. It must also deliver information in an easy-to-digest manner as the soldier’s attention must remain focused on the environment and the conduct of the mission. Finally, edge computing will foster a huge increase in data an information flow which means successful deployment rests on developing capabilities in parallel to faster identify anomalies resulting from human or technical errors in the data collected (e.g. incorrect GPS readings or erroneous reports) and propose solutions to reduce the risks associated with erroneous data.

A crucial contribution to collaborative combat

There is no doubt defence today is as dependent on keyboards and clicks as it is missiles and machinery.

​​Operationalising this new data-centric approach at the tactical level is both a major challenge and opportunity, but it will be a game changer. It will require addressing and overcoming shortcomings in data dependency, reliability, and cybersecurity to name but a few. This is the price to pay to ensure that digital transformation brings about a crucial contribution to collaborative combat.

Please download your copy of the The Vauban Papers or for more information on how VMware can support your military operations, please contact me: mcrowley@vmware.com

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