Inside the US Army’s ‘warfighting’ cloud
The US Army first-ever CIO, Dr. Raj Iyer, discusses the ‘game-changing’ impact the cloud, data, and AI are having in support of Ukraine’s fight against Russia and in safeguarding democracy at home.

US Army CIO Dr. Raj Iyer is virtually on the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war — and it is not an exercise.

As part of NATO’s commitment to support Ukraine, a democracy Russia invaded in February, Iyer and his CIO colleagues across all branches of the US military, along with the US Department of Defense CIO and officials at the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies, are feeding near real-time data to Ukrainian commanders on the ground and to its besieged government.

“Data is now the new ammunition,” says Iyer, who is a civilian and the first US Army CIO, a new position that reports to Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth. “At the end of the day, the business of the army is to fight and win wars. We’re here to serve our national security interests, and for us, that meant making our cloud become a warfighting capability.”

Intense pressure is on the nation’s military IT chiefs to either deter or engage and win what Iyer calls “Future Fights,” given that the technical acumen of the nation’s major “peer adversaries” — Russia and China — is more sophisticated than past combatants such as Afghanistan and Iraq, he says.

To build a digital infrastructure capable of fulfilling this remit, Iyer, who previously worked at Deloitte and the private industry, has had to work hard and fast. When he assumed the CIO role two years ago, the US Army did not have a cloud up and running.

First, Iyer tapped into the $500 million budgeted for the army’s digital transformation over a five-year period and “productized” it by building a secure cloud infrastructure based on AWS and Microsoft Azure. His second priority involved making an aggressive push to move the Army’s most mission-critical SAP ERP systems to the cloud.

“We were just in the infancy of developing a strategy of how we were going to adopt the cloud. The Air Force has gotten a little ahead of us, but we set aside [the funds] to build capacity, have the right architecture and the right level of security controls in place to make sure we could leverage the commercial cloud,” he says. “Then the most important part for us was to decide how to operationalize this cloud infrastructure.”

The cloud’s impact on the war in Ukraine

It did not take long. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia began just two years into Iyer’s tenure and the US Army’s adoption of the cloud. As an ally of Ukraine, the US Army is applying its war-fighting platform — its cloud, data, analytics, and AI — to help Ukraine’s logistics and battlefield strategy.

“Our 82nd Airborne [Division] was the first to land on the ground. In support of our current operations in the Ukraine, we’re actually able to leverage the cloud to support their operations,” the US Army CIO says.

“It’s the first time in Army history in which we’ve had an army unit support a current operation with the cloud, leveraging commercial satellite assets,” he adds. “Low Earth orbiting satellites gave us access to intelligence data at the point of need at a scale we were not used to …. in near real-time.”

The amount of data incoming from satellites, ground intelligence, and social media — from soldiers and civilians on the ground, as well as fake video from enemies — is staggering, he says.

Yet Iyer is encouraged that the digital infrastructure has been a critical asset in this conflict and in protecting the homeland.

“We are able to quickly integrate intelligence coming from our national intelligence and from the intelligence assets of our partners, go through and validate the data sources, and then very quickly come up with the right assets to target and send that information out,” he notes. “As much as we rely on our weapons systems platforms, the ‘Future Fight’ depends on how quickly we are to enable commanders in the field to make decisions in an uncertain environment.”

The strategy is already having an impact. The more data the US Army can source and validate quickly, the better positioned it has been to uncover “the right assets to target” and send that information to the Ukrainians, he says, citing Ukraine’s use of the M142 Himars, an advanced rocket launcher, on specific targets. It has been reported that, with Himars, Ukraine has been able to cut supply lines to Russian troops and strike Russian ammunition depots.

“It’s been a game changer just in the last three months of the war and it would not have been possible without the cloud,” Iyer says.

Analytics, AI, and the rise of cyberwarfare

The US Army has migrated 250 of its most significant applications to the cloud, including one of the world’s largest SAP ERP systems, Iyer says, adding that he opted to migrate the toughest application challenges up front and that “gave us a lot of lessons learned.”

The US Army has 200 data centers and is aiming at a 50% reduction in “rent” by 2027. Rather “lift and shift” all applications to the cloud, itself a non-trivial task, the army will be “killing” some of the 3,000 legacy systems that are antiquated or non-native to the cloud.

In recent years, the US military has reorganized its operations to leverage new types of data at scale “in ways not used before,” Iyer says, especially as space and cyberspace have been added to the multi-domain list of traditional warfighting domains: land, air, and sea. Doing so necessitates tremendous innovation in native-cloud application development.

Cyberattacks within the US and in hotspots such as Ukraine are a top priority for the current US administration and Department of Defense. There are many more sophisticated forms of attacks that experienced hackers in Eastern Europe are waging every day.

“We’re going to be dealing with an adversary that is technologically savvy and is able to disrupt communications on the battlefield through jamming and electronic warfare,” Iyer says. “It’s very clear the enemy will go after cyberwarfare first to decrease some of our capabilities and our power projection platforms. It all comes down to leveraging data at a scale and operationalizing it in way we’re not used to.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seven months ago, the US military has collected an abundance of data about troop movements and traffic flow from Google Maps and other Internet services and social media websites in real-time. This would be impossible without the cloud, Iyer notes.

The US military has also used its offensive cyber capabilities in its operation in Ukraine in “hunt forward” missions to prevent cyberattacks. “When you’re able to synthesize and bring all this data together, we want to allow commanders the option of non-kinetic effects because using fire is probably the last thing we want to do,” he says.

The CIO points out that the US military is exploiting AI and machine learning to ensure the data collected is valid and to identify disinformation and misinformation intentionally leaked by opponents. The sheer volume of incoming data exceeds the ability of humans to process it without AI and supercomputers. “That’s where the power of the cloud comes in,” Iyer says. “If the cloud and some of these newer technologies become the common denominator across the battlefield, then the question [of success or failure] becomes how well we’re able to take advantage of AI and machine learning algorithms in creative ways.”

But making decisions on the battlefield can get tricky when AI is involved, he says. Automation is efficient in the enterprise but not permissible in weapons systems that result in human collateral.

“In our doctrine, we never allow machines to fire automatically, even in conventional warfare,” Iyer points out. “Where cloud and AI can help us is to give our commanders options, kinetic and non-kinetic, but we’ve never [fought] machine to machine.”

Protecting democracy and the homeland

The US Army is also deploying AI and the cloud to protect the nation’s election infrastructure and to prevent any electronic attack or misinformation distribution that would “undermine our democratic processes,” Iyer says, noting that the cybersecurity executive order put in place by President Biden requires protecting the homeland and ensuring there is no risk of the US critical infrastructure being compromised.

“But our enemy only needs to get it right one time, and if you look at the numbers of attempts to penetrate our networks, it’s literally in the tens of thousands of times per day,” Iyer says. “I would say we are in a much better position than we were two years ago, but our weakest link is the one about which we’re always concerned.”

There’s still more work to do but the US Army has come a very long way in two years and its roster of data scientists — which numbers in the low thousands — continues to grow through its training program with Carnegie Mellon University. Of course, one of the Army’s greatest challenges — and that of the entire Department of Defense as well — is attracting top talent for “a fraction” of the salaries they can earn in the private sector, Iyer says.

The US military as a whole is highly focused on targeting, collecting, weaponizing, and protecting data at edge devices such as IoT and ground sensors and drones in addition to large-scale data combat platforms. “We’re shifting rapidly towards low-cost, high-volume, easily perishable types of data collection devices, from drones up to space assets, open source, and social media” Iyer says.

Even as the armed forces fight battles overseas and domestically, they are preparing for the future by expanding the cloud infrastructure’s capabilities and educating the chain of command at the Pentagon about the opportunities afforded by data and the cloud — the modern war-fighting platform.

“We need to integrate this even more into our warfighting capabilities by getting all commanders to understand the potential of the cloud and how it has already started to change the future of war fighting,” Iyer notes. “They need to start integrating these digital technologies in warfighting exercises and experimentation. It’s a whole different operating model for us.”

The CIO and his counterparts are engaged in a digital transformation campaign to educate the military brass about how the data should be distributed and used in decision-making at “the edge and how we take advantage of all of these cloud assets,” the CIO says.

“We expect the US Army of 2030 to be fully multi-domain capable, fully leveraging all these technologies in ways we have not in the past,” he adds, noting that this includes the bevy of digital imaging, target recognition, and advanced AI assets in space. “Every one of these exercises we conduct in the field we will have lessons learned and apply them in an agile way to refine our architecture, determine what data we need, and continue to refine our AI algorithms, our tactics, and our doctrine in the field.”

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