What is the biggest challenge facing our military’s systems today?

The U.S. Department of Defense has trillions of dollars worth of weapon systems in the sustainment phase of their life cycle. Many were designed in the 80s and 90s, yet our military will still need to rely on them for decades to come. As you can imagine, these systems have been upgraded, modernized, and computerized many times over the years, making them heavily dependent on the smooth flow of digital information to execute their shoot, move, and communicate functionalities. 

Each of these weapon systems are effectively mobile data centers, each generating terabytes of data over the course of every mission. And that data can be used to inform cyber, maintenance, and other operational decisions, in real time. But to date, the operators, maintainers, and commanders of these systems have lacked the capability to reliably and effectively access that onboard data and use it in a meaningful way. That capability is referred to as onboard OT observability – the ability to derive real-time, context-rich insights from refined onboard data to enable not just a more comprehensive understanding of the state of a system—or system of systems—but ultimately to enable smarter, faster decisions and actions. In a world where our weapon systems are challenged daily – even during peacetime — it’s critical that those on the frontlines gain and maintain this level of observability into weapons systems and defense assets to maintain decision dominance. to operate in degraded and contested environments. It means that their attack surface is expanding, especially as our adversaries rapidly increase their capabilities to exploit vulnerabilities.

What’s at risk if there’s a lack of observability?

The lack of observability makes it almost impossible to detect digital anomalies or protect these weapon systems from cyber-attacks. Even a simple piece of malware could have severe consequences. If one onboard computer is infected, it could very easily pass corrupted messages through the entire network and disrupt the functionality of the whole platform. Because our operators, maintainers, and commanders lack a means to observe what’s happening with the platform in real time, a cyber attack like this could very easily go undetected. It’s more critical than ever we make sure the weapon systems we rely on for our national security are fully protected.

With our military so reliant on so many legacy systems, how do we even begin to tackle a problem like this?

The first hurdle to overcome is retrofitting these platforms with a centralized, on-edge mission computer capable of communicating with the entire onboard network. When you upgrade a platform over several decades in a piecemeal fashion, chances are you install up to dozens of onboard computers that essentially don’t talk to each other. Equipping platforms with a device capable of collecting, storing, translating, and analyzing all the data produced by all of its components (line replicable units) is paramount. The next step, though, is making that data usable. You need an API that presents onboard data in human readable formats, provides real time alerts and digital anomaly detection, and distributes that data into jointly operated situational awareness tools (think JADC2) so commanders can make faster, more informed decisions on the battlefield. The on-edge capability is of critical importance in contested or congested spectrum environments. Implementing real-time observability solutions for our weapon systems will allow us to modernize, protect, and enhance our current weapon systems fleet.

Shift5 and Foreign Policy recently hosted a roundtable event on the margins of last year’s Reagan National Defense Forum, where many different challenges to the Department of Defense’s acquisition system were discussed. As you examine those challenges through the lens of real-time observability solutions for weapon systems, what do you believe most urgently needs to be done?

At a high level, a few things come to mind. The Department of Defense really needs to remain committed to modular and open systems architectures. They need to ensure that they’re not procuring systems that they cannot enhance or extend in the future. And I think most importantly, our acquisition leaders need to be equipped with more speed and flexibility. Right now, they lack the budgetary white space necessary to take risks and implement modernization priorities on timelines that allow us to break out of the typical three-year Program Objective Memorandum (POM) cycle and Professional Development Program (PDP) process. These are all difficult conversations, and none of them are new, but I think any of these steps would go a long way to ensuring our military is moving at the speed of innovation.

Michael Weigand is co-founder and Chief Growth Officer of Shift5. He is responsible for defining and overseeing execution of Shift5’s long-term growth objectives. Prior to Shift5, Michael served eight years in the U.S. Army as an Airborne, Ranger-qualified Infantry officer and was selected as one of the first cyber operations officers. While at a Department of Defense support agency, he served as an engineering and operations officer conducting both applied research and development (R&D), development, and field operations. Michael has established and commanded multiple cyber organizations and skunkworks-style teams across the Army and DoD. Notably, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Army’s platform mission assurance program, the Army’s expeditionary cyber forces, the Army’s first cyber capability development unit, and multiple high-profile projects in conjunction with the Defense Digital Service. Michael holds a BS in Computer Science from the United States Military Academy. Other than defending OT, Michael’s secret superpower is flying small airplanes into small places.