What ‘Digital Force’ Really Means—and How to Build One

Members of the military and the defense industry tackled what Air Force Brig. Gen. John M. Olson called the “ethereal or amorphous or ambiguous” concept of a “digital force” in a panel talk at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Aug. 25.

Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond announced his vision in May for the Space Force to become the first “digital service.” But, what does being a “digital force” really mean, and how do you build one?

Here’s what the panelists had to say:

Define It

One consensus: Data provides the backbone of a digital force.

A digital force is “powered by data, and the power has to be [at] your fingertips,” said Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft’s cloud service Azure Space. That means “anytime, at any security level, anywhere in the world—or, off the world.”

Write Detailed Requirements

Often the ability to field a new system comes down to whether the digital infrastructure is ready to go, said Scott Nowlin, strategic systems chief engineer for Air and Space Force Solutions at BAE Systems.

“It really gets down to the requirements,” Nowlin said. For example, “How fast do you need it as a warfighter?” he asked. ”It’s not just the warfighting requirements—it’s the requirements for your digital infrastructure. … The No. 1 imperative is to help define those requirements, and a digital force, a data-intensive force, shouldn’t shy away from that.”

Measure Outcomes

Measuring the outcomes of programs or missions may be more difficult in the digital domain, but “it’s vitally important to ‘measure what matters,’” said Olson, who is both mobilization assistant to Raymond and the Space Force’s acting chief technology and innovation officer, highlighting an expression he likes to use.

Data may be the backbone, but “it’s what we do with that data” that really matters, Olson said—”Turning that into actionable information at the ‘speed of need.’” To do so, the services collectively need to “drive toward those metrics or measurements that allow us to know when we get there.”

Build In Scalability

Building a digital force applies to more than weapons systems or intelligence. Carol Erikson, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of systems engineering and digital transformation, says even “back-office functions” need to be addressed.

“In order to scale, we need to be able to apply these digital capabilities very specifically to the unique program requirements and mission areas that need the capabilities—but you also have to be able to expand across the whole enterprise,” Erikson said. “How do we manage the digital transformation of our business processes, our program management processes, our global supply chain processes, so that across the board all of our functions are operating at the ‘speed of relevance’?”

Break Down Data Barriers

The panelists cited barriers to accessing all the data that a service will need to become a “digital force,” including over-classification on the government side and legal agreements on the commercial side.  

To help remedy that?

“Elevate the importance of addressing the security barriers,” Erikson said, including both the often long process of receiving approval to operate at a given security level; and the difficulty of exchanging data across security levels.

“What can we do to bridge the gap across all of our integrated systems so that we really can get access to that data?” Erikson said. “We have to have tough discussions about data covenants, and … standards—interoperability standards between models, or standard taxonomy across companies—that then can make it easier for our mission customers to, again, leverage that data to the most effectiveness.”