Overview: The United States Army has announced a digital transformation and government innovation strategy that will modernize and interconnect the Army by updating and securing infrastructure, reforming necessary assets so they can better work with the new approach, and developing a workforce knowledgeable and effective in deploying these tools in partnership with civilian resources.
An Updated Army
Any government organization faces several challenges when it comes to technology, none more so than the U.S. military.
- It must be proven. The technology needs to be well-understood and field-tested to work in a variety of conditions. This generally makes it difficult to deploy new technology as field testing, in particular, is a long-term process.
- It must be secure. While there are some obvious reasons for this, on an operational level, soldiers need to trust their equipment, inside and outside battle. If they can’t trust it, they won’t use it.
- It has to be tough. Even in non-combat situations, military equipment travels long distances and needs to be quickly deployed and packed up. Soldiers are most likely to trust the equipment they know will take a beating.
As different units have different versions of these standards, and as the military is on the cutting edge of government innovation, for the Army, this has meant that a wide variety of systems have been put in place over time. All the way back to the 1930s, the Army is deeply entwined with the history of computing. And combined with the need for tough, trusted, and proven gear, that’s meant a series of legacy systems that weren’t engineered to speak with each other.
This has presented a challenge as the military looks to the next seven years. Currently, it’s working on a program called Waypoint 2028, a broad-based effort to shape the Army to face the challenges of the future. Modernization is accepted as an ongoing process by the Army; hence the use of the term “waypoint,” as 2028 will be a point where the organization stops and assesses where it’s at in its goals.
With IT, this presents a particular challenge as eight years can be an eternity. Consider that, since 2013, we’ve seen:
- The rise of cloud computing as an accepted tool;
- The arrival of data science as a key driver of not just scientific projects but consumer products;
- The widespread adoption of tools like health trackers;
- The integration of the Army’s own Global Positioning System (GPS) into our everyday life to a degree the Army itself never envisioned;
- The plunging cost of former cutting-edge techs such as solar panels and drones to the point where civilians regularly use them; and
- The pandemic forcing a sea of change in how we work and use technology.
The Army, therefore, isn’t going to attempt to predict the next eight years. Instead, it’s looking to develop a flexible network that can incorporate whatever comes next. The Army’s digital transformation strategy has three objectives to help it rise to the occasion.
1. Modernization and Readiness
According to the Army, this involves the creation of “a digitally-enabled, data-driven Army propelled by digital transformation.”
In practical terms, this is defined by standardization. The Army plans to standardize IT across the board, whether it’s on the base, in the field, or in related enterprises. Those standards will include “zero trust” cybersecurity measures to counteract attempts to invade their systems and to protect data.
All of this is to serve a core end goal of making the enormous amount of data and the analysis around it, available across the entire Army. By breaking down silos and ensuring systems speak to each other in the same language, the Army is putting its data at troops’ fingertips.
Every organization has a “way we’ve always done things,” and government organizations are no different. This is often a challenge to government innovation, especially on this scale. Reform, defined by the Army as “optimized and mission-aligned digital investments providing greater value,” is seen as changing how things are done to reflect lessons learned in the private sector.
To that end, the Army will be auditing its IT assets, developing new ways to allocate those assets that offer more transparency to Congress and other oversight bodies, and reducing the number of different IT requirements across different departments to limit how many vendors it works with.
This is both to make systems easier to use while reducing their costs and meeting the Army’s obligation to the taxpayer to use their dollars as wisely as possible.
3. People & Partnerships
By definition, an army is defined by its people, and the Army is working to develop “a tech-savvy, operationally effective digital workforce partnered with a robust network of allies, industry, and academia” with this objective.
This will take a few paths. The most obvious is training, with the goal to get every soldier up to speed on the necessary techniques and approaches to the data they need. Another is through recruitment, as the Army looks to find the best and brightest in IT, data science, and other fields to add to the ranks. And a third is partnerships, working with organizations already exploring certain fields to develop their capabilities.
This area, more than anywhere else, is where government innovation comes into play. In fact, one subheading in the Army’s strategy calls it out specifically: “Identify and cultivate the skills needed by the Army of 2028 by fostering digital innovation and continuous learning.”
This will take the form of hackathons, low code/no code programming, internal crowdsourcing for ideas among the ranks with rewards and recognition for creating ideas and implementing them, and developing new platforms so that soldiers and civilians can interact and collaborate across vast distances and beyond their individual units.
Government innovation and private innovation often drive each other. As the Army continues to develop new strategies and ideas, its contractors and observers will offer their own spins.