Making the case for smarter military bases

Military bases can benefit from technology that many American cities have already begun to test.

In a recent commentary for Wired, Ted Johnson, the defense and national security research manager at the Deloitte Center for Government Insights, described how smart-city technology could make military bases both safer and more efficient.

Taking advantage of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, analytics, automation and robotics could “enable more economical operations and help military staffers make better decisions,” he wrote. Video analytics and shot-spotter technology, for example, could increase physical security for service members on base.

GCN spoke with Johnson and asked him to expand on his ideas. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In your article you wrote about smart technology’s potential to make military bases safer and more efficient. What is it about the technology that led you to that conclusion?

Johnson: The amount of connectivity that these technologies bring -- specifically, the internet of things and being able to use wireless sensors to collect, process and then share information across the network. That’s the new way things are being done.

Compare the way cities will look in the future -- and are beginning to look today -- to how military bases look now and have looked for the last 50 years. It’s obvious there are advantages to be realized in upgrading military bases with these new technologies. No matter what aspect of the base you’re looking at, there is a comparable smart technology and application of that technology in a city or university or an airport that allows for efficiencies to be realized and for upgrades to occur.

Is this something that military bases are already considering?

Johnson: It is beginning to be deployed on military bases, mostly in the energy realm -- smart energy initiatives have been scattered across the services and across bases for a few years. In Georgia, Fort Stewart and the Kings Bay naval submarine base are working with Georgia Power to deploy solar panels that give those bases their own independent power source during emergencies. But in times of regular operation, they sell the excess energy back to Georgia Power.

There are smart construction initiatives happening at an Air Force base in Colorado. Through urban planning and mixed-use initiatives, they’re able to build firing ranges and air strips in ways that are environmentally friendly, don’t disturb the working or living occurring on the base, but still allow the base to meet its mission.

We’re beginning to see the rollout of these technologies, but it is at the very early stages.

Is there a reason that military bases have not adopted this technology as quickly as cities have?

Johnson: The reason it’s not happening as quickly as it could is because of the security concerns. When you try and convince base commanders to install wireless devices on their most critical services but can’t give them a 100 percent certainty that those devices will be secure from hacking or tampering, they don’t see the advantage of saving a few dollars while introducing security vulnerabilities.

The sooner private companies and the government can do a better job showing how these devices can increase security, streamline operations and deliver efficiencies, the quicker these technologies will be adopted by military bases. That’s the biggest hurdle; fortunately it’s not insurmountable.

IoT devices have received some bad press; they were part of the largest botnet attack ever, but the vulnerabilities those hackers leveraged are just basic password issues -- where device owners hadn’t changed the hardware password away from “password” or “123.” So taking some very basic security steps with these devices -- along with some more rigorous testing by the different services -- will mitigate a lot of the vulnerabilities that devices can introduce.

Are there devices on the market that meet the security requirements the Defense Department is asking for?

Johnson: That’s a hard question to answer because the Pentagon has not outlined its security requirements for internet of things devices. So that said, we’ve been down this road before. The first time we introduced unclassified computers onto bases, we had to come up with the security precautions, restrictions and regulations that need to be placed over the network to ensure some level of security even in dealing with unclassified information. So the process and the structure are there to put these things through testing and outline regulations. When that occurs, the market will respond because the Pentagon is a great partner to have, especially if you’re in this line of work.

Is this a change you see coming from the top down, being championed by someone at the Pentagon? Or will the change happen one base at a time?

Johnson: I think we may see a little bit of both. If we want to change the entire structure of how military bases operate, then it will have to come from the top. It will take quite a bit of investment and a concerted political and financial investment from the Pentagon to make this a reality. So if it is going to be widespread, it has to come from the Pentagon.

That said, I think it will take people at a particular base to make the case that their base is the prime candidate for a pilot. Sometimes when you can show success in a pilot project then demonstrate how it can scale and make the business and security case, then you’ll see investment from the top down come in.

One of the biggest hurdles is that all of these bases report to higher headquarters, so you can’t really make a change on a single base without addressing the questions from every level of leadership. And the pot of money that is accessible to each base commander isn’t enough to make smart technology wholesale upgrades on a base, so they will need higher headquarters’ funding. So it will have to be a partnership between the two.

Do you have ideas about what early pilot projects might look like?

Johnson: Picking a singular application of the technology, like energy, is an easy win. That model already exists, and we’d just have to build the business case that it is successful and secure. But then we’re not really selling the smart base concept, the integration of multiple technologies that really matters.

What I think should happen, is transforming an underutilized base into a smart base. Use a set of maybe three or four buildings to show what the technology might look like.

Is there anything you want to add?

I think the timing is right for all of this. There is going to be supplemental funding coming from the Trump administration to the Pentagon, focusing on streamlining capabilities and realizing efficiencies. That is the very thing that smart technology is made for.

NEXT STORY: NOAA modernizing nautical charts

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