I was walking through an airport today and I saw the familiar sight: Two dozen Airmen checking in and loading out to some new destination, or maybe returning home from a tour of duty overseas.

I was taken back to my own former life as a leader in a far-off land – we were 30 guys depending on equipment built to meet the needs of a fight that might or might not be the fight I was in.

When US forces deployed to the Balkans in 1996, with the hope of being home for Christmas, we found that our intelligence platforms had been built for a conflict we weren’t fighting in a land where we were not. We looked for “red versus blue” dynamics and quickly realized those paradigms fell short in the stability operations model.

Six years later, as war raged in Iraq, my tools in Bosnia to track friendly forces had up to a 45-minute lapse in reporting – I’d pass a patrol and 45 minutes later they would show on my computer monitor.

There is nothing new in that – every war is fought initially with technology built after the last war, based on our best guesses about who will be our next enemy. Today, however, our systems are smarter at adapting than they were just a few years ago.

Today, industry is taking lessons from the commercial sector to help us build out infrastructure faster than ever before. As we look at banks who spin up a new branch, or a company that buys a new subsidiary, we are building networks that behave intelligently. These advanced networks meter access to critical resources when the time is right, rather than pulling a rip cord and hoping for the best in a flood of critical data.

These commercial sector actions bring challenges that are no different from an Army unit moving into an IT infrastructure owned by the Air Force. Our policies prohibit this, however, because the technology has historically been less than supportive of the idea.

Soldier with children and dog.
Military forces need to adapt faster to changing conditions. Intelligent networks provide a solution.

But imagine tomorrow an administrator who can look at a new group of users and resources and can bring them in with just the click of a mouse, providing access to some resources and blocking them from others, based on what they actually need to use. The Army unit might need to use internet gateways, but they have no reason to poke around in the Air Force’s firewall settings.

At the same time, the visiting Army unit doesn’t want their Air Force hosts seeing their operational plans or their manpower readiness, so with a few more clicks, the Army’s data is secure. All of this can happen with trusted hardware already in place on many garrisons today.

Two years ago, not long after I joined Cisco, I had the chance to attend a breakfast in Massachusetts where Larry Payne, our vice president for federal government, was talking to Air Force and industry leaders alike. We were enjoying the camaraderie of scrambled eggs and bacon, when Larry told the group, “we are finally in a place in our history, where we can do all of the things we’ve wanted to for years.” That statement holds even more true today.

With intelligent networking, we can test resources in a production environment after a shorter-than-ever evaluation cycle. Imagine if the next greatest infrared camera came to your FOB with claims of unheard of resolution and range. Or if you had vibration sensors capable of discerning between bears and humans. The time to market becomes measured in lives and with intelligent, software defined networks, we can limit the access of these new devices while allowing the right operators the right permissions to use the data those assets are providing.

With heuristic tools like Applications Dynamics, Stealthwatch and our full suite of security products, we can listen to the traffic being sent to and from those resources and compare them to expected behaviors — and quickly quarantine things which don’t behave as we expect them to — just in case the latest and greatest isn’t what we’d hoped for.

But here is the piece we miss: Our garrison Army should behave no differently that our warfighting Army. Our bases, posts, camps and stations here in the U.S. demand the ability to add new assets to the network — and perhaps here more than anywhere, we need the ability to adapt quickly. Adding an IP-controlled lathe in a depot shouldn’t demand months of testing when we need parts manufactured now.

Connection between the networks of industry partners and program offices should be the norm, as we grow to embrace those partnerships and require more transparency into program delivery. And connecting tenants on a base should be handled over common infrastructure. One joint base I visited was running 17 networks, most of which on the unclassified domain. If there was ever a case for intelligent consolidation to a handful of networks, this was the model.

We have to move beyond the handwringing of yesterday and embrace what our technology can deliver for us today, and meet tomorrow’s requirements against whatever threat the world throws at us. Most importantly, we have to recognize that our mission in the profession of national defense is critical — but our industry peers feel the same about banking, shipping, and human resources in their business.

When the next fight on the next front comes around, we need to be at a place where our networks and our other infrastructure assets exist as a force enabler and not just the pipes, as so many people consider it today. We must put in place a network that facilitates the fight and doesn’t just exist.


Jason Port

Enterprise Account Manager

Public Sector - Federal – US Air Force