Thursday, March 9, 2023
A Conversation with Len Bastien, CIO, Canada’s Department of National Defence and Terry Halvorsen, former CIO, U.S. Department of Defense and IBM executive

IBM and AFCEA host the SPADE Defense Conference bringing together members of the armed forces, intelligence agencies, industry, and academia from the U.S. and around the world.  The 2023 conference occurring March 9th is set to examine today’s defense technology and progress toward achieving “decision advantage” and “decision superiority” across domains by deploying technology, including data fabric, in support of multi domain command and control. 

Just prior to the conference, I had an opportunity to discuss this year’s theme as well as progress in realizing the vision of multi-domain command and control (MDC2), the role data fabric plays in realizing this vision,  and how the U.S. and its allies continue to collaborate in delivering multi-domain and joint all domain command and control with the IBM SPADE host Terry Halvorsen, former CIO, U.S. Department of Defense and Len Bastien, CIO, Canada’s Department of National Defence. The following is an edited version highlighting a few topics we discussed. Click on this link to hear the entire interview.  

On the Mission of SPADE 2023 

Terry Halvorsen: This year's conference theme is about two things. 1) how do you use data and 2) how do you use that data more effectively to make better decisions that give you an edge in the battle space. We began this dialogue on at last year’s conference. The technology has matured year over year and the focus today is more around extracting the most value as possible from the data to help warfighters make better decisions and advance the vision of multi-domain command and control. This event is happening simultaneously in Washington, D.C., Brussels, Belgium, and Canberra, Australia. We want to get a better understanding on how technology can help give us an advantage on the battlefield. 

Len Bastien: Terry has nailed it. In the last year since last we spoke, we in the Canadian armed forces have realized that it needs to be more digital. We can’t risk falling behind in digital.  Today, we have availability to a wealth of data and yet there is a lack of visibility into that data. In other words, though we have so much data, we need to do a better job of turning that data into making better decisions. This conference gives us an opportunity to share with industry and academia our needs. Like, how do I bring capabilities online that are going to move the data from the back office into the hands of the operator and the warfighter … making the use of that data a force multiplier. 

On Gaining “Decision Advantage” and “Decision Superiority”  

Len Bastien: In Canada, decision advantage is ultimately about being able to leverage the full value of our data at the speed of relevance. Realizing this advantage isn’t easy. The first challenge is the quantity of data that is collected and stored across many platforms and networks. Given that significant amounts of data are stored in many different places across many different protected networks, it’s no small feat pulling that data from all these storage areas and repositories and using it to make better decisions in a timely manner. There are also continued challenges ensuring the fidelity of the data, which makes cyber defense even more precarious. This is likely going to become even more challenging with advances in emerging technologies that exponentially increases the quantity and quality of data collected. The goal of decision superiority is to hone our ability to gather data, extract insight from it, and ultimately present it in a way that it helps us achieve mission. 

Terry Halvorsen: Len made an excellent point. We need to operate at the speed of mission. We're not suffering from a lack of data. We're suffering from a lack of intelligent information at the speed that the commanders need it. We need to better cross-connect all the data sources and get the data out at speed the of mission. We hope to identify the best ways to do this during our panels and discussion at the SPADE conference. 

On Multi-Domain Command and Control and Joint All-Domain Command and Control

Terry Halvorsen: It boils down to how do we most effectively use relevant data at speed necessary to command and direct our forces in such a way that we achieve a superiority, be it fire power superiority, force superiority, and overall superiority that influences the battle space so that we win. There may be different names for this approach, but we are all now coalesced around the fact that it is about getting data to commanders at the right level and quickly. 

One of the issues we contend with is that sometimes commanders get information and data that frankly they don't have the ability to use for whatever reason. We realize it’s more than simply providing commanders more data faster. It’s about identifying the right data for that specific operational command, so they receive the most useful data that nets the most significant impact. For example, an armored battalion is going to have a different perspective than say an infantry battalion or a support battalion. Therefore, data needs to be available in a timely matter, tailored to the mission needs of that specific commander. 

Len Bastien: Given the ever-evolving threat landscape, we see the value of viewing defense through a multi-domain or Pan-Domain lens. This means expanding our focus to include such recent domains as space and cyber while also pursuing a whole of government approach. Let me digress. Let's say there's a balloon floating over your country at a very high altitude. A lot of different government agencies are concerned about this event, not just the armed forces. For example, Transport Canada is concerned because it manages the airspace. The Coast Guard has concerns because what if it falls from the sky. Every agency needs to coalesce and come together in a single domain or Pan-Domain – a whole of government approach -- to share intelligence, provide awareness, and coordinate. 

On the Value of the Data Fabric 

Len Bastien: The concept of data fabric is the ability to have access to your data on demand no matter where it is stored or on what cloud platform it is housed. It is about getting data to the right place at the right time for the right purpose. 

Terry Halvorsen: We have such a diverse set of data locations, types of data, and software. How do we put it all together in a fabric that has value? If you can't knit a fabric together, it doesn't serve any purpose. We've got to be able to knit all our data types, storage, software together in a way that produces value and speed that keeps us ahead of the threat. Doing this isn’t easy. As Len pointed out, the volumes of data are just going to keep increasing. What complicates the situation is the number of legacy systems that are in place.  With all these challenges, in a sense, we need a stretchable fabric that can adapt and accommodate to ever-evolving threat landscape marked by continued technological advances.