A Faster, Better Way for the Army To Realize Its Modernization Ambitions
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A Faster, Better Way for the Army To Realize Its Modernization Ambitions

Jun 25, 2023

The so-called technology "Valley of Death" involves enormous challenges for startups and small businesses to bring new technologies from prototypes to production on behalf of our military. The metaphor alludes to how startups and small businesses often fail in the time lag between researching, developing and testing a military-specific solution and getting the needed funding to deliver it at the scale our military requires. It stands to reason that any opportunity to streamline acquisition processes, teach startup companies to navigate them better or create government organizations that can shepherd them through the process will be a welcome change. But there’s also another way: public-private partnerships.

Government and industry can create long-term relationships to address large, multi-year infrastructure challenges via public-private partnerships. Such partnerships can help overcome the technology Valley of Death by combining the government’s authority with industry expertise to better integrate innovative technologies. Government and industry share responsibilities in a public-private partnership, with the government partner providing regulatory oversight and the industry partner responsible for performance throughout the project lifecycle. Public-private partnerships are most successful when backed by political commitment, a clear legal framework, a competitive procurement process and realistic risk sharing.

Networking service is an excellent example of a technology where public-private partnerships could benefit the military considerably. Commercial network service providers are vested in delivering a reliable, secure information technology infrastructure to meet the ever-increasing demands of a data-driven world. Since most telecommunications technologies are dual use, i.e., government or commercial industry, public-sector entities can use private sector technology investments to achieve their objectives while incorporating the best innovative technology that improves that infrastructure. Public-private partnerships could pave the way for the government to leverage the entire telecommunications industry to help keep technology on the leading edge.

The U.S. Army aims to modernize its communications infrastructure as part of a broad, ambitious plan to field and support a modernized fighting force. Through public-private partnership with industry partners, the Army could take advantage of global economies of scale and use commercially advanced communications technologies to achieve many elements of this plan. It could also achieve a “running start” by purchasing small-scale managed solutions in limited production environments to achieve specific goals, then scaling those solutions across the broader Army after they are proven. The key is to unshackle commercial providers from the government processes that lead to the “Technology Valley of Death.”

The Army will face many difficult choices in delivering a communications infrastructure across its tactical, operational and strategic levels. Still, one stands out the most: go it alone or tap into the expertise of private sector partners. The Army expects to accomplish its strategies and goals within the context of its primary mission. But suppose the Army decides it must be hands-on to procure, implement and manage the technical elements of its information technology (IT) infrastructure. In that case, it stands to reason that it will be diverting essential resources from its primary mission.

Instead, the Army can access software-defined networking (SDN) through public-private partnerships where commercial carriers using SDN deliver managed IT networks. This arrangement could help the service leverage industry R&D capabilities and processes to integrate innovative technology into the architecture. This takes advantage of economies of scale since most IT technologies benefit the commercial and government worlds equally. Commercial carriers do this at a pace and scale the Army can no longer match. Also, many carriers have already started on their own zero trust journey, and those capabilities can be extended to the Army. The Army should not have to spend money and resources solving problems the commercial carriers have already solved.

Public-private partnerships between the Army and commercial carriers could also involve private cellular network (PCN)-based solutions as part of a managed ecosystem of other network-related capabilities to leverage 5G technologies. These capabilities include converging disparate communications networks such as nonterrestrial networks, Wi-Fi 6 and Department of Defense spectrum to cellular networks. 5G eliminates network seams and allows the entire wireline, cellular and Wi-Fi network to be managed as a single fabric with shared policies. Such partnerships could also allow the integration of 5G-based open radio access network solutions to help the Army evolve its infrastructure to a software-defined, open architecture model that enables network agility and flexibility, supplier diversity, customization and resilience. Software-defined architecture offers the benefits of optimized network traffic routing, automated software updates and avoidance of vendor lock-in. This would allow the Army to reduce risk using proven technologies, establish a baseline for achieving economies of scale and provide a platform for innovation.

If the Army scaled PCN solutions across and between installations, an integrated network solution would help increase productivity and efficiencies by allowing Army personnel highly secure access to data wherever and whenever needed. Network roaming is a critical component of mobile, secure data access along with a hybrid cloud architecture that allows connectivity for everything from “bring your own devices” up to government-furnished equipment. Hybrid cloud architecture also supports big data analytics, thus allowing for innovation, accelerating operational improvement and achieving organizational goals.

With the network convergence strategy elements addressed at the operational and strategic levels, the stage is set for cellular implementation in the tactical arena. Using public-private partnerships, the Army could implement tactical PCNs now and connect those PCNs through commercial and military backhaul. Then, as the “Next G” capability is rolled out, it would be available for inclusion in the Army’s tactical networks.

Michael Haggard is director of Army Strategy, AT&T, and a former colonel with the Army Signal Corps.