Could DOD’s ambitious joint information environment lead to iPhone-wielding warriors?

Hopes are high that DOD's cloud-based architecture will make a real difference for deployed soldiers, but some challenges still remain to be solved.

Defense Department officials have recently been talking up one of their latest efforts in using IT to improve communications: the joint information environment. Once completed, the program is designed to provide a seamless, holistic operational picture to service members everywhere, helping to improve the speed and ability to share data and intelligence regardless of location.

But what does that mean for troops on the ground?

The JIE is being built, in layers and through cloud architecture, to aid in varied global missions – and while its champions admit to challenges, they are confident as they gear up for the first increment to be fielded to DOD’s European and African commands.

In combat, “there are periods where you’re disconnected or networks are disrupted; at that point you know when that disruption occurs, you’ve got the very best network environment that the department can provide,” said Rear Adm. David Simpson, DISA vice director. “This has the potential to greatly improve what that squad leader can see and the decisions he makes.”

Simpson spoke Sept. 13 as part of a panel at an AFCEA DC event in Arlington, Va.

While there are a number of systems and programs that aim to provide a comprehensive picture of the combat environment, officials say the JIE will help tie together communications across organizations that are all too often segmented from each other – even though they are ostensibly fighting together.

“In forward operating bases today, there are multiple people responsible for pieces and parts of the network…and they’re all going out and across to talk to each other. It’s insanity,” said Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, formerly commanding general of Army Network Enterprise Technology Command and now awaiting reassignment as director of plans and policy/J-5 at Cyber Command. “When you get to a joint information environment with common standards, it becomes more of plug-and-play. You know what expect and it can be repeated, and it’s something you can be trained to appropriately react. You don’t have to try to figure out how to put it all together on the fly in the battle space.”

Napper admitted there are hurdles as DOD moves forward in developing and preparing to field the JIE, including the establishment of joint processes and governance.

Another challenge isn’t limited to just the JIE, but common across DOD and the rest of the government: mobility. Although years in the making – subject to waves of evolution in mobile technology – one primary goal of the JIE is to be accessible by mobile devices.

“You have a young kid weighing 110 pounds soaking wet and then you put a 100-pound rucksack on him and make him walk up and down hills in Afghanistan and fight,” said Martin Westphal, Joint Staff CIO. Holding up his smart phone, he added, “From a practical perspective of how it’s going to help a guy on the ground – it’s much easier to hump this up and down hills than it is multiple radios…on top of carrying an 88-millimeter mortar base plate and a machine gun.”

The JIE is set to be compatible with mobile devices – but which ones? With the announcement of the new iPhone 5, the panelists indicated that high hopes for an Apple-enabled JIE could become a reality if the right security can be achieved.

“My primary NIPRNet mobility device is an iPhone 4, so I’m anxious to see the 5,” Simpson said, adding that dialog between DOD and Apple is ongoing. “Our enterprise mobility efforts now…are very much oriented around shifting the burden of security form the device itself to the networked eco-system, from the device to the mobile-devices management, the mobile application store. We do expect that when iPhone 5 comes out we will be integrating that into our capabilities out of the box and working the security.”

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