In times of crisis, few things are more important to ensuring mission success than the ability to interconnect information, people, and resources. The current pandemic presents the challenge of having to accomplish this with an unprecedented number of the workforce working remotely. The ability of agencies to easily adapt is tied to how quickly they could enable a digital workplace by leveraging and utilizing existing unified communications solutions, platforms, and revised workplace processes.
Lt. Cmdr. Seabring (not her real name) began her first day of working remotely from her home in Northern Virginia in spring 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic became more far-reaching, Seabring’s command, which normally works at the Pentagon, directed all employees to stay home to help prevent spread of the disease and to protect its workforce. Excitement about the possibility of working from home was high the first day — no need to iron the uniform, she could stay in her pajamas until 1000, no morning traffic or fighting to find a space to park at the Pentagon, no need to pack a lunch or gym clothes, and not having children, she did not have to worry about anyone else’s schedules.
Although the circumstances that caused the work environment to change were tragic, working from home did not sound like it was going to be so bad; at least, not at first. Then came the realization that meetings and access to all her data and files were going to be a challenge. She needed equipment to access her government network which she did not have. Everything happened so fast that many of the support personnel required to get the resources (equipment, permissions, IT services, etcetera), were not in the office. Also, it became a struggle to keep up with a crushing demand and huge volume of service requests and trouble calls. How was she going to be able to keep doing her critical budget work without secure, reliable access? Maybe working remotely was not going to be as easy as she initially thought.
This was the reality for many as the rate of COVID-19 infections increased throughout the U.S. military services as well as corporations across the world. Pandemic-related events occurred quickly and in an unprecedented manner. Many organizations, including those in the Department of Defense (DoD), had long known a pandemic could cause such a situation to occur, but no one really planned for a global disaster. No executable well-rehearsed continuity of operations plans were in place so that employees could adapt to working remotely; nor was an infrastructure, services, and access controls in place to support such a crisis.
How did the Departments of Defense and Navy Respond to the Remote Work Demand?
For the Navy and the DoD, the response was swift, deliberate, and aggressive. Navy leadership moved quickly to implement technology, processes, and cybersecurity measures to provide services to remote workers beyond the limited group that already had telework arrangements in place. Enterprise services for the DoD included a quick stand-up of capability specifically designed to facilitate remote work, such as the Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) environment which leveraged web-based video teleconferencing for meetings and collaboration.
The solutions were not perfect. For example, the cybersecurity protection of CVR, while secure up to Impact Level 2, required a username and password rather than the stronger authentication required by DoD systems. A temporary exception was granted to facilitate work until stronger measures could be put in place. However, DoD and the Navy were able to provide an 80% remote work solution to get business and operations moving again.
Leadership looked at the capabilities needed to be employed across the shore enterprise. Navy leadership also assessed risks to missions and made decisions on which capabilities to provide, ensuring iterative improvements in scalability, service capacity, bandwidth, and cybersecurity. The push to accelerate deployment of technology and services challenged conventional processes and required both technological and cultural shifts in how the DoD and DON obtained and implemented new capabilities. Information technology projects and upgrades that would have normally taken months or years were expedited at unprecedented speed.
Examples of the DON’s and Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA) herculean efforts are:
- Navy quickly scaled from less than 100K to over 500K remote workers.
- Navy doubled its bandwidth in a few short weeks after first limiting streaming video for non-essential services, such as commercial video sites, to enable mission critical work to continue.
- Navy implemented additional Virtual Private Network (VPN) sites for secure connections.
- Navy expedited an Office 365 implementation pilot from 10,000 to 160,000 users in a few months, instead of the five years originally planned.
- DISA implemented the CVR platform reaching over 1 million users (250K were added in one day), activated 63 new circuits providing a 500 gigabyte increase in bandwidth, delivered anti-virus software to remote workers, and scaled up virtual private network (VPN) capability to support over 120K users; all in a few short weeks.
As we move beyond the pandemic response, DON leadership knows that the horse is out of the barn and there is no turning back on proceeding with key IT infrastructure and digital transformation initiatives — particularly those that deliver an agile and flexible remote workforce.
DON Chief Information Officer Aaron Weis said, “The requirement going forward, and in the modern world, is that we can securely move any information from anywhere to anywhere. That is a baseline requirement going forward. And that, while that sounds very simple to say, that’s not how our infrastructure and our networks are organized today.”
So much work remains to be done.
The Way Ahead
Dana Deasy, the former DoD Chief Information Officer, stated in summer 2020 that remote work was going to be permanent for some employees and he was tasking the department to implement long-term solutions to enable secure communications to Impact Level 5, and up to IP 6 classified, work to continue into the future.
The pandemic and its repercussions on telework capabilities permanently changed the way DON leadership and the workforce view how remote work can be done. This spurred acceleration of digital transformation efforts within the Navy and expedited network modernization. The Navy will rely on DISA and the work their Emerging Technology Directorate is doing to continue to improve cybersecurity for even the most sensitive information to be accessed and processed by teleworkers.
For the Navy, digital transformation is key. This includes maximum use of commercial cloud for data science/data analytics, improved cybersecurity and the Development, Security, and Operations (DEVSECOPS) of microservices that can leverage authoritative data across the entire Naval enterprise from sea to shore.
Ensuring ubiquitous operations is a key ingredient of the future Naval information platform. This means that the workforce can conduct business and manage operations from anywhere; accessing all the necessary data securely and reliably, both classified and unclassified. This continuity of operations includes how the Navy incorporates tactical networks, under the Project Overmatch and Team Plaid efforts, and other non-traditional systems, such as those that control combat, weapons control, operational technology, and internet of things (IoT) devices.
The holistic digital transformational approach needs to be considered and any key enterprise data and transport architecture capabilities need to be backed up by a unified communications (UC) plan to ensure mission success. When focusing on specific support to teleworkers, there are several elements that need to be addressed in terms of people, process, policy, and technology, using industry best practices and aligned with our joint DoD partners. These include, but are not limited to:
- Situational Awareness - Providing presence and availability for real-time management of people and resources. This includes tools that can visualize for leadership different aspects of business and operations, such as correlating data into predictive and comprehensive decision-making “views” based on the user’s role. Defining roles and information needs, access to data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) will all be key factors.
- Operations and Business Continuity - Maintaining mission assurance and seamless operations in times of crisis from anywhere means identification of the Navy’s “no fail” most critical missions, identifying and mapping the systems, information, and processes that support those missions. Making sure teleworkers can access that information securely and reliably to continue those essential missions anywhere, anytime is critical.
- Cybersecurity - Ensuring solutions provide cybersecurity to protect critical information and enabling the future cybersecurity zero trust environment for a large and sustained remote workforce. The National Security Agency promulgated extensive guidance for remote workers regarding how best to secure their activities now and into the future zero-trust environment.
- Speed, Scalability, and Capacity - Having the flexibility to easily consume resources as needed. Increasingly, the DON needs to buy capabilities as a service to make sure they are available day one — without costly reengineering or integration.
- Automation - Enabling AI to quickly deliver services, increase productivity, and reduce resource requirements. Use of AI in automation for everything from readiness and operations to cybersecurity will improve speed and accuracy of mission accomplishment.
- Flexible Consumption - Taking advantage of cloud computing capabilities and leveraging the best industry has to offer regarding data use, storage, protection, and discovery.
- Digital Transformation - Leveraging digital collaboration tools and revised processes for faster, better outcomes.
- Omnichannel Notification - Driving engagement regardless of device or location. This includes the complex addition of IoT, robotics, and autonomous and unmanned vehicles into the IT architecture.
- Multi-vendor Solutions - Embracing interoperability of existing investments by adherence to industry open standards solutions. DON should adhere to open standards-compliant products to improve agility in switching between commercially provided solutions that meet those standards as operational requirements change.
- Public Safety - Empowering first responders to quickly manage crises using the latest technology, training, processes, and public sector collaboration.
So, eight months later, as Seabring connects remotely to perform her work, her “day at the office” is now as routine as when she went into the Pentagon. She still goes in two days a week to work on classified systems and those on excepted networks that remain inaccessible to teleworkers, but she is signed up to be part of the pilot testing a new capability that will allow for that in the future. She is confident that the advances in technology, cybersecurity, and processes mean it is only a matter of time… a short time before she may be able to turn in her Pentagon parking pass for good due to the advances in secure remote work technologies.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States Government.
Danelle Barrett is a retired rear admiral and former deputy CIO (Navy) and cybersecurity division director in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare.