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​A Sept. 17 panel at AFA's Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., looked at improving the US military's network superiority. Stock photo via Flickr.

The US military is years behind the cutting edge of network capability and, because of the antiquated way it buys IT products and services, isn’t getting the best out of the commercial services it uses, according to a panel at AFA's 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

AT&T has invested $145 billion in its global network, “That is not an investment that we have made in the past or that we frankly have the budget space for now,” explained Heather Penney, a fellow at AFA’s Mitchell Institute and author of a new policy paper: Network Superiority: The Foundation of Future Warfare.

But the Pentagon, through its network provisioning agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency, persists in building and managing its own networks and a new approach is desperately needed — especially given that network superiority is the key both to military advantage and the ability to conduct multi-domain operations, she said.

“The network is the physical domain of cyberspace,” she said. Having the right network capabilities was as essential to maneuver in cyberspace as having the right aircraft or vehicles was to maneuver in the physical world.

“Owning and operating a proprietary network is not the right approach,” she told Air Force Magazine in a brief interview after her panel.

“They’re still building a proprietary DoD [network] and that’s why we have a network that lags years behind what commercial network providers can provide,” she concluded

And it’s not just the commercial providers who have overtaken the military, the US is also lagging its adversaries.

“We’re certainly playing catch up … in terms of investment in our infrastructure,” said panelist Derek Strausbaugh, a Microsoft executive. “The chinese are way out in front of us and it’s largely because they’re partnering with …[state-owned] private sector enterprises.”

In point of fact, contractors already provide the majority of the networking hardware that the military uses, explained retired Air Force Col Lance Spencer, now an AT&T executive. “It’s a misnomer … that there’s a DISA network. Much of that network is leased from companies like ours.” But despite that, the military is not getting the best-of-breed capacity offered by the cutting edge technology major network carriers employ.

“The problem is that they’re not leasing the full capabilities,” explained Spencer, who authored the first Air Force Cyberspace Concept of Operations. 

“The way the requirements are written, the way the procurement works, we’re delivering a much lesser version of that network.”

The huge investments made by the private sector — and the cutting edge capabilities they can deliver — have led some to argue that the military should treat network capability, and indeed every kind of IT product and service, as a commodity.

It is “The equivalent of buying unleaded gasoline — you can go to any gas station and the only thing you care about is the price,” said former Air Force CIO and retired Gen William Bender. “If industry can do that better than we can for ourselves, then why should we do it?”

“Who’s had Gmail fail on them at any time over the past five years?” Bender asked. “No one? How about your email at work?” A forest of hands shot up. “So that makes that point.”

“ATT invested $145 billion with a b in their network,” he continued. “Shouldn’t we take advantage of that? And get out — where we can — from under the costs of refresh and put that on industry.”

Penney disagreed that networking capability should be treated as commodity: “Networks are a weapons systems. They are not just a facilitator, but are crucial to the way we maneuver in cyberspace … We’re not just going and buying gas … It’s much more important than that,” she explained, saying a better comparison would be to a road system.

Her solution? The military needs to “Shift our perspective … and leverage a whole of nation capability” that aligns what the private sector can offer better with what the military needs.

Spencer agreed, saying the US needed “to find ways to leverage what we’re all doing [in the private sector] and to bring to the military’s attention what our companies can bring to the fight.”