The Defense Department’s partnerships with industry, particularly in the mobile realm, are essential to its future success, the department’s deputy chief information officer for command, control, communications and computers and information infrastructure said Oct. 24.
“I think that’s what’s going to make or break us in the future,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert E. Wheeler told attendees at the 2012 Security Innovation Network conference.
DOD’s plans for mobility, spectrum policy and programs, and national leadership command capabilities all are interconnected, he said.
Mobility – the ability to perform the department’s functions in various locations – hinges on the effective use of the wireless spectrum across all of DOD’s systems, Wheeler said. This includes planning for the president’s order to free up 500 megahertz of the spectrum, as well as future technological changes. National leadership command capabilities tie back to mobility as well, he added, because the president and other senior leaders need the ability to make decisions while on the move, anywhere in the world.
“They’re all tied together,” he said, “and there’s a thread that goes between them all.”
Wheeler said that DOD’s agility – its ability to change quickly in response to technology – worries him.
“This is an area that DOD is getting better at, but we’re still not perfect yet,” he said. “Our acquisition programs are known throughout the world to be large, … but not to be very fast.”
That’s something that has to change, especially in regard to “tech-heavy” areas, Wheeler said. “We’re trying to make sure that the way we write our programs and build them [includes] that ability, the agility, to move and to change quickly, unlike in the past.”
The need for speed must be balanced with security, he said, and DOD is working with industry to accomplish that from the beginning of the acquisitions process. “No matter which way you look at this, we have to have cybersecurity dialed in from the beginning,” he added. “It has to be dialed in at the right level and dialed in at the right speed.”
DOD also has to be able to move more quickly in the mobility arena, he said. Mobility is an important part of being able to keep up with change, he added, noting that decisions now are made at a much higher rate than in the past, and DOD is going to become much smaller in the future.
“What do we have to have? Access to information any time, anywhere and on any device,” Wheeler said. Without communications, DOD can’t conduct operations, he said.
DOD released its mobile device strategy earlier this year, and will release the implementation plan in the next few days, the general said. The bottom line, he said, is that DOD’s approach to mobile devices provides cost savings to the nation, increases communications security and jumps the productivity curve.
DOD has an “intense” interest in adapting commercial mobile technology, Wheeler said, noting that mobility pilot programs are ongoing throughout the department. All of them use mobile devices to communicate in one of three ways: off the network, or via commercial Internet; secure but unclassified; or classified.
Each of the three “bins,” he said, has unique security requirements and will have its own application store where users can download mission-related apps.
The Pentagon has issued an open request for proposals to build the mobile applications store, Wheeler said. Applications submitted to the store will be approved, disapproved or returned for revision within 90 days, he added.
“The key to us is streamlined certification,” Wheeler said. “If somebody says [certification will take] six months to a year, it’s useless. … Things change too dramatically. Even 90 days is probably a little bit too long.”
Mobility also is tied to spectrum policy, the general said.
The president has asked for the federal government and commercial industries to clear 500 MHz of spectrum to use for economic development, he said. That could enable broadband companies to put a 4G network, for example, across the nation, including in rural areas, he added.
A change like that would have an extremely significant economic impact on the country, Wheeler said, similar to the impact of GPS and other breakthroughs.
“I would argue that it would transform the nation,” the general added.
But vacating spectrum is costly and time-consuming, Wheeler said, as it requires equipment replacement and new acquisition strategies. And because U.S. allies have bought equipment that frequency shifts would affect, it also has international implications. Those allies may not be able to simply change to a different frequency, because their home country’s spectrum also may be crowded, he explained.
“In the future, we have to have the ability to go to multiple bands with our equipment,” Wheeler said, and to be cost-effective, that ability needs to be built into the planning process from the beginning.
Spectrum crowding isn’t strictly a negative issue, the general said. “Scarcity is the mother of all inventions,” he said, noting that new ways to use the communications spectrum have been developed that probably wouldn’t have been had there been enough spectrum to go around.
For example, he said, some new technologies allow a frequency to be shared, rather than owned by a single user who may not use its full capacity. In the short term, Wheeler said, DOD is shifting the focus to sharing frequencies instead of clearing and auctioning off frequencies.
Long-term spectrum plans include exploring the concept of a national spectrum research facility and developing a long-term spectrum strategy, the general said.
DOD is working on increasing system flexibility, operations agility and refreshing and updating the regulatory framework, Wheeler said.
“While we’re working very quickly to do this, we also have to have the regulatory requirements – to include laws – that allow us to do some of that sharing,” he said. But that can be a slow process, he added, so the regulatory process has to become faster and work in tandem with the acquisition process.
Long-term Defense Department strategy has to connect to the national and commercial strategies, Wheeler said. “Connecting those dots is something that we have been trying to do for about the past decade correctly, and I actually think we’re getting close,” the general said.
Industry can help by understanding the budget and political environments, Wheeler said. “It’s an environment where, obviously, all of the budgets are restricted right now … as our nation comes out of the economic slump,” he said.
Despite what many view as a negative economy, Wheeler said, he sees a lot of opportunity for development. “Watching all the innovation [coming] out of scarcity in the Department of Defense … shows me that there’s probably more opportunity now than there’s been in many years to fix some of the problems that have been difficult in the past.”
Success will consist of a partnership between government and industry, Wheeler said, noting that many companies are finding out they need the same levels of cybersecurity and innovation as DOD does.
“If you come in and make it more secure, cheaper for the department overall and help us with productivity, you’re going to get in the door, because that’s what we need,” the general said. “It’s good for the taxpayer, it’s good for the nation, and I don’t care what agency you’re going into, they’re going to need your help.”