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What makes software architecture critical to the US military?

Connecting soldiers, systems, and equipment is key to future warfare.

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A memo from the secretaries of all three military branches is nothing short of a call to action. On January 7, 2019, the tri-secretaries issued a warfighting imperative to Department of Defense executives: the United States’ future military victories would be determined by the ability to rapidly share information across domains by deploying open systems architectures. The mandate was clear: The key to winning future wars is a massive, coordinated software update.

Compared to iconic American machines like the M1 Abrams tank, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the Nimitz class aircraft carrier, software might seem like an unassuming key to victory. But for more than 50 years, the power of tanks, planes and ships — what the military calls platformshas transformed. Now, the ability to share information between these platforms holds as much strategic importance as the weapons they carry. And rapid technology innovation is making it possible to transform the warrior into a platform that can be integrated into the network of joint operations.

That’s where open systems come in. Open systems architecture uses common standards and open APIs to share information between disparate machines, devices, and networks. This open design makes it possible to “plug and play,” upgrade, and remove individual components without disturbing overall system integrity.

The flexibility of open systems fosters innovation. “The best open architecture achieves the collective ingenuity of industry,” says Greg Wenzel, an Executive Vice President in Booz Allen Hamilton’s global defense group. “It enables multiple industry participants to deliver their unique solution to the problem.”

The shift from platform-based to network-based warfare began in the second half of the Cold War. In the late ’70s, American military leaders began to use consumer technology for defense, integrating sea, land, and air forces. The US increased the power of its ships, tanks, and planes by upgrading them with technology and networking them together to establish joint operations, and ultimately transformed the US Department of Defense through technologies including C4I, stealth, precision guidance, and ISR. During the Gulf War, the US began to leverage increasingly sophisticated data gathering and analysis, command and control centers, and precision force. The impact of this new form of information-based warfare was far-reaching and compelled countries including Russia and China to upgrade their conventional military forces.

But technology’s potential would be fully realized only if the information systems could communicate with each other. And by the mid-’90s, as the civilian internet began to build global communities, the US military couldn’t share information across branches. The Army, Navy, and Air Force had developed their own closed information systems with unique, proprietary standards. “In the ’90s, we built monolithic systems — systems on a particular platform to automate a particular process. Nobody did anything wrong — that’s just the way it was,” says Wenzel. “But the internet changed everything. Software architects had to figure out how to break systems into chunks that could seamlessly interact with each other.”

The internet was a game-changer for consumer and defense technology. Networked computer systems introduced countless opportunities for warfighting and called for an updated version of the military doctrine proposed by US defense leaders 20 years prior. In the early 2000s, inspired by the power the personal computer achieved when connected to the civilian internet, Admiral Arthur Cebrowski emphasized the importance of linking different platforms together. He developed a doctrine of interoperability — technological protocols to connect the different branches of the military and strategies for waging networked warfare.

The Department of Defense has developed and deployed data standards for its vast pools of information, but the work of deploying open system architectures is ongoing. The components of the DoD’s information systems are increasingly heterogeneous, consisting not just of networked tanks, ships, and planes, but of body-worn sensors and mobile devices. Just as computer networks transformed tanks, ships, and planes, wearable devices can transform the warrior into a fully integrated weapons platform and their squad into a combat platform, generating and receiving information fully integrated into the Department of Defense’s vast networks. Accordingly, the benefits of open system architectures — like resiliency, increased information flows, and better operations — also can benefit combat warriors in theater.

Networked computing transformed the American military and changed the way wars are fought and won. But reaping the benefits of technology-powered warfare requires distilling big problems into small component parts. Guided by an open systems approach, the organizations that supply the US’s defense technology are transforming the battlefield of the future.

See how this connection of soldiers, systems, and equipment at the edge empowers the Digital Warrior—learn more.

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