Opinion

Three strategies to help the digital Air Force achieve takeoff

For the U.S. Air Force, getting information to warfighters in near-real time has become almost as important as having fighter jets capable of flying at 1,500 miles per hour. Airmen need to be able to access data at the point of combat, which is why the Air Force is accelerating its move toward network-centric operations.

The Digital Air Force Initiative is an effort to leverage data and applications at the edge, along with artificial intelligence and machine learning, to “field a 21st century infrastructure responsive to the demands of modern combat.” Like other defense organizations, the Air Force aims to modernize its systems and move from siloed platforms to a connected network allowing fighters to access and share information quickly. As a result, they’ll be able to get a better handle on adversaries, analyze and assess potential courses of action, and become much more responsive in combat.

The move from platform-centric to network-centric operations is a heavy lift fraught with potential risks. Anytime an organization makes a wholesale move from a legacy, hardware-based infrastructure toward a software-defined network (SDN) there’s a heightened potential for creating additional security vulnerabilities. SDNs can introduce hundreds or even thousands of new touchpoints capable of being exploited by adversarial threats.

While having cloud environments at the edge of the network can give agencies processing power, we’ve all learned data volume will inevitably increase over time. Securing data, while making sure the right information gets to the right people, will only become more challenging.

Here are three strategies the Air Force should employ to ensure its initiative doesn’t hit any turbulence.

Monitor, discover, and map all endpoints, including those at the edge

Collecting, analyzing, and distributing information at the edge of the network is a core tenet of the Air Force’s strategy. Maintaining the security of edge devices will be paramount. And while network monitoring has been table stakes for some time, expansion to the edge of the network requires a more robust form of analysis.

To ensure the security of its connected devices and the data they harness and distribute, the Air Force must monitor, discover, and map all of its remote systems. Complete infrastructure visibility across the entire network, from the data center to the cloud to the edge, will become extremely important to ensuring information doesn’t get into enemy hands.

Prioritize data traffic and establish redundancies

Highly distributed networks can easily get bogged down when transmitting massive amounts of information simultaneously, which is likely to happen during a combat scenario. To avoid congestion, and to ensure high priority data reaches its intended recipients, the Air Force needs to determine what data is most important. Then, the agency should institute traffic prioritization rules for which information gets transmitted.

In the event of a bottleneck, mission-critical data will automatically be sent while lower-priority information is either held back or sent through a secondary link, like a satellite signal. Having a resilient redundancy in place, in case a primary link goes down, is vital to sustaining the ability to communicate and receive guidance.

Data traffic prioritization can be achieved by monitoring network throughput and proactively measuring and optimizing traffic levels. Bandwidth can be adjusted and allocated accordingly to ensure the information needing to get through makes it to its destination.

Verify new systems and monitor API connections

Clearly, the Air Force is building a network far more distributed and advanced than anything the organization has worked with before. It’s likely many of the technologies the organization will end up deploying are just as highly advanced, which, ironically, could make it significantly more difficult to monitor and secure data traffic.

Connecting and verifying new systems can be particularly challenging. Many of today’s most popular and necessary technologies, like Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), tend to be multilingual, with the ability to connect to many different applications. The problem is many APIs are also vendor proprietary, and there are thousands of different APIs available. This combination can make it tough to verify the security of these systems and successfully monitor their performance, availability, and security.

Again, the Air Force must ask the question, “What data values do we want to definitely monitor?” and then expose those data values to their monitoring protocols. This will allow the organization to keep a close eye on the data the API is accessing and maintain a sound and secure operation.

Finally, for the Digital Air Force to achieve takeoff, the agency needs to do the things it’s already doing but go even bigger. The same previously successful security tests and protocols will continue to apply as the Air Force moves into its network-centric phase, but those tests and protocols will need to be expanded to cover a much larger environment. The organization will also want to leverage automated security and monitoring controls, to help make management of the rapidly scaling network more manageable and efficient.

At the end of the day, efficiency is what the Digital Air Force is all about—getting information to pilots more efficiently, so they can make decisions in the blink of an eye. Securing this information and monitoring the network so it’s operating at top speed, are critical to the initiative’s ability to take flight.

Brandon Shopp is vice president of product strategy at SolarWinds

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