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CHIPS Articles: DON IT Conference Successfully Goes Virtual for First Time

DON IT Conference Successfully Goes Virtual for First Time
By CHIPS Magazine - October-December 2020
In a year marked by firsts, the Department of the Navy IT East Coast Conference was held Nov. 4 & 5 via Microsoft CVR Teams due to pandemic requirements. It was the first time a DON IT Conference was held in a virtual setting. The change in format, however, proved to be an unexpected advantage allowing more attendees to participate and providing flexibility for attendees to easily switch between online sessions.

The sessions were organized along the three strategic objectives of the DON Information Superiority Vision (ISV): Modernize, Innovate and Defend, and the two strategic assets of the ISV: Data and Workforce. The sessions were led by the subject matter experts and program managers translating policy decisions into decisive actions to transform the DON’s IT platform to support cloud services, a zero-trust architecture, machine learning and artificial intelligence, emerging technologies, data-driven decisions, and a digital workforce.

At the conference kick-off, DON CIO Aaron Weis was joined by the Chiefs of the four directorates under the DON CIO: Jane Rathbun, DON Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Information Warfare and Enterprise Services; Tom Sasala, DON Chief Data Officer; Mike Galbraith, DON Chief Digital Innovation Officer; Chris Cleary, DON Information Security Officer; and Josh Reiter, DON Chief Workforce Officer and OPNAV N2N6 Director, Information Warfare Manpower & Training Integration who provided updates to their efforts to build the modern network the DON needs to securely move data from anywhere to anywhere to support the Naval Tactical Grid, the Chief of Naval Operations’ Project Overmatch, and the Defense Department’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) vision.

IT Modernization in a Unique Window of Opportunity

During the CIO Town Hall, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations charged the DON CIO to lead, orchestrate and accelerate the Navy’s end-to-end transformation to a digital service with initial focus on delivering combat power and lethality to Naval Forces. (Figure 1 provides a snapshot of Naval Digital Transformation.)

Mr. Weis explained the department is at a once in a generation inflection point with a convergence of events in 2020 that led to dramatically enhanced telework capabilities, the launch of CVR tools and deployment of Microsoft 360 due to the pandemic and the need for robust data exchange. He said that in nine months, the DON more than doubled its telework capacity.

“We are on the cusp of modernization that captures the vision of the Information Superiority Vision which is ‘combat power,’” Weis said.

Later in the Town Hall briefing, Weis explained the NGEN-R contract was designed to drive network modernization. However, challenges in the award process have shifted network and transport modernization to 2022.

“The bottom line is modernization has been pressurized driven by need and major events. We are conducting assessments to retire legacy systems in 2021 and realize greater return on investment through Modern Service Delivery 2021-2023. This will allow the department to reinvest and prioritize activities and capability delivery through further consolidation of networks, transition to zero-trust architecture and implement Single Naval Identity, Install Automated Active Monitoring across the Naval Enterprise and implement Integrated Network Command and Control (INOCC) afloat and ashore, Weis said.

Discussing what is likely to be a flat budget environment, the DON CIO reiterated the notion of the department being in a window of opportunity to create maneuver space by retiring expensive legacy systems and directing savings to support modernization and an enduring IT capability.

Mr. Weis discussed the enterprise innovations that will build competitive advantage:

  • Execute Project Overmatch to extend transformational network capabilities to the tactical edge;
  • Standardize the Software Development Cycle via DevSecOps to more rapidly deliver software to the fleet; and
  • Deploy Artificial Intelligence and 5th Generation (5G) Capabilities.

If you think 5G is just about faster cellphone service—you are in for quite a surprise. In a special 5G session, open only to common access card holders, several speakers explained the military advantage 5G will deliver. The U.S. is embarked on a whole of government commitment to reap the economic and national security benefits of 5G transformation. Government agencies, standards bodies and trade alliances are building ownership authorities, strategies, policies, and funding with centralized leadership through the Defense Department.

DON IT Portfolio Review

In modernizing DON IT, it is important to review the DON’s current IT portfolio. The DON invests more than $4 billion, which equates to 7% of its top-line budget, on its IT infrastructure. The investment is similar to what other world-class IT organizations spend. However, the DON is not receiving the same valuable return on investment and lacks the agility to fund strategic priorities. In response, one of the department’s efforts is focused on conducting a Naval IT Infrastructure Portfolio Review in November to identify an approach to modernize its IT infrastructure in an agile, sustainable and affordable method. The review will be data-driven and will deliver an automated and repeatable data analysis environment that can support multiple future inquiries, said Louis Koplin, Deputy CTO.

DON Transition to IT Enterprise Services

A new policy in development will shift program mindset from building IT services from scratch to an assumption of shared services. The DON CIO and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition are expected to co-sign the new policy by the end of the year.

In the Nov. 5 afternoon Modernization session, Rear Adm. Susan BryerJoyner, OPNAV N2N6D, explained the advantages of using enterprise services combined with the DevSecOps model for more rapid software delivery. Basically, DevSecOps is a software engineering model that aims at unifying software development, security and operations. The goal is to automate, monitor, and apply security at all phases of the software lifecycle.

“We have a very exciting development, we’ve recently held a live walk-through of a process to build and secure applications quickly using the DevSecOps approach. We did this in partnership with NAVWAR, PEO C4I, the Navy Authorizing Official (NAO), Security Control Assessor (CSA) – a host of partners,” BryerJoyner said. “Essentially, it allows us to take a containerized application, get it through the authorization process in less than two months and if there are any minor changes to the application – we can get those through a rapid ATO (Authority to Operate) in less than a week.

“When you look at other applications where the average time to an ATO is 18 months to two years that’s an exponential improvement in our ability to field capability quickly to the fleet. We are building the environment with our enterprise service providers so I encourage you to work with them to use this DevSecOps environment,” the admiral said.

Due to myriad uncertainties, the admiral said her team has prepared a plan for modernization based on assumptions that can be modified depending on how the pandemic and budget play out.

“The leadership that DON CIO Aaron Weis and his team have provided has been invaluable in trying to help us understand the problems that we are trying to solve and having data-driven discussions that result in solid decisions in how we’re going to move forward in our partnership with the Marine Corps,” BryerJoyner said.

Leadership Insights

Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare and DON Deputy CIO (Navy) Vice Adm. Jeffrey E. Trussler, and Deputy Commandant Information and DON Deputy CIO (Marine Corps) Lt. Gen. Loretta Reynolds, and special guest DoD Principal Deputy CIO John Sherman, joined DON CIO Weis in a Town Hall Nov. 4 – a featured event at each DON IT Conference.

Sherman credited the DON CIO, Navy and Marine Corps for leading in the migration to O365. “A rising tide raises all boats – you’re helping the entire DoD by being a pathfinder.”

He explained the DoD is working to extend Delayed/Disconnected, Intermittently-Connected, Low-Bandwidth (DDIL) communications in an approach the Marine Corps calls from “flagpole to foxhole.”

“The DoD CIO team gets how important the Department of the Navy mission is, particularly in the context of the National Defense Strategy, it is so important to dominate in the maritime space. We get how important digital modernization is going to be,” Sherman said.

Admiral Trussler said he concurred with Weis that the department was in a unique period of opportunity.

“The pandemic has given us a boost to see how we should have been operating all along and how much further we should have been ahead [in IT capabilities] than we are now. The fact that we are having to rely on the CVR and how frustrating it’s been to hear Reservists who work in industry tell us, ‘We have been working like this for a long time.’ It’s been a jolt to the Department of the Navy.”

As the Director of Naval Intelligence, the admiral said he has access to routine and exquisite intelligence.

“The persistent drumbeat is the attack we are under every day… I can’t emphasize enough how much adversaries are probing… But what is really an easier target that they’ve been able to exploit quite a bit is, I’ve heard it described as the ‘soft underbelly,’ is the DIB. That’s where the real crown jewels are, not on my desk, but the Defense Industrial Base,” Trussler said. “We don’t have direct control over that security. We have standards and processes that are supposed to be followed. But they are going, not so much to the primes, but the sub-primes and their sub-primes – that’s where they are trying to steal our information. We can’t be vigilant enough in protecting our systems and information.”

Marine Corps Network Modernization

To regain and maintain technological advantage and deliver transformative warfighting capabilities, the Marine Corps developed a Network Modernization Plan to deliver a network to support future operations by synchronizing network modernization initiatives; defining and measuring network management disciplines, and seeking trade space to pay for modernization.

The Marine Corps Network Modernization Plan is a Service-Level plan to align actions and resources over the Five-Year Defense Plan (FYDP) to deliver capability in coordination with the Marine Force Development system, to inform Program Objective Memorandum (POM) planning/programming decisions.

“When I go around the Marine Corps and talk about information as a warfighting function, I try to get down to why the modernization of IT is so essential to meet the needs of the Future Force. I’ll start with the changing character of the future fight. We are really comfortable understanding inside the geographic boundaries of an individual COCOM how to fight. Admiral Trussler talked about some of the work we are doing together — Project Overmatch, the Naval Fires concept — and we have the Navy and Marine Corps walking down the halls of the Pentagon more closely than I have seen in the past. So we are really working on how we do this from a Naval perspective as we think about moving from the large static formations of the past to mobile, agile forces of the present,” Reynolds explained.

“We are in the middle of thinking about how the Marine Corps is organized for the fight. This idea of Expeditionary Based Operations (EABO) for sea control and denial, and how do we provide capability as part of the Naval Service to the Navy’s efforts in the Indo-Pacific. Naval integration for us is key. Project Overmatch is really important to us, precision logistics. EABO is going to require us to have access to data, it’s going to be intelligence driven, it’s going to require maneuverability and survivability,” Reynolds said.

A Highly Successful Conference

At the conference conclusion, Mr. Weis said the conference exceeded his expectations as a highly successful coming together of the Navy and Marine Corps IT/cyber community.

Attendee participation was lively as questions, answers and comments flowed on the CVR chat option. The event hosted 1,200 virtual attendees and about 75 enthusiastic presenters eager to talk about their efforts in digitizing and securing the DON’s information platform. Interestingly, the CVR environment created a sense of camaraderie among speakers and attendees, not often seen in an online event. As one speaker put it, the only thing missing was the inevitable line for coffee seen at in-person events.

“The opportunities that the events of 2020 have given us is a unique place and time. It is ours to grab onto; it is a sliding window... I’m lucky to have great leaders to work with to get us there. We are not only presented with these unique opportunities, we have strong leaders ready to do this. I am excited,” Mr. Weis said.

If you were unable to participate in the DON IT Conference, you can still benefit from the insights provided by IT/cybersecurity leaders and subject matter experts across the Department by clicking on the links which will play a video recording of the session you select.

For the selection of recordings, please visit:

Related Policy:

Figure 1. Snapshot of Naval Digital Transformation.
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