21st century warfare requires a 21st century network

The U.S. Department of Defense faces global instability and a rise in non-traditional adversaries and asymmetric warfare. The nature of conflict today has become increasingly unpredictable. Yet, consensus forms around the idea that 21st century war combines elements of artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, analytics and data visualization with traditional elements such as air, land and sea-based attacks involving the modern warfighter.

Cyberwarfare has taken its place alongside traditional warfare strategies. Communications and the ability to collect, move and use information has always been vital to war strategy. But it has become even more critical in 21st century warfare techniques.

DoD has tremendous resources: maybe even an unbeatable edge when it comes to traditional, physical warfare. But what path can DoD take to achieve technological superiority over adversaries?

Leading network services providers now offer advances in networking technology that can help DoD become more agile and efficient while supporting its goal to lead the world in 21st century warfare capabilities. They can help DoD attain a more modern, network-based approach to support AI, IoT, robotics, data and intelligence gathering and analytics capabilities. They can equip DoD with competitively superior capabilities in cybersecurity, network management and network operations assurance.

The private sector is embracing these new networking advances. Companies are modernizing their operations using three key networking innovations: software-defined networking, network function virtualization, and network-as-a-service. These same innovations can help DoD improve its cyber posture, extend its existing investments in cloud technologies, and jumpstart its technology transformation. They can help DoD be mission-ready across a global landscape where combat is both real and virtual.


In the software-defined network (SDN), software makes it possible to accelerate functional upgrades while adding unprecedented levels of capacity and flexibility.

An appropriate analogy is the smartphone. Smartphones virtualize a range of services and replace dozens of single-function products: cameras, navigation tools, clocks, calculators and camcorders are just some of the examples. In the software-based network, adding critical capabilities and functionality can be as easy as downloading a new app.

With an SDN, network functions previously delivered via costly, inflexible hardware are now delivered via software. Commodity hardware replaces specialized hardware such as routers, switches and application servers. Network services are provisioned rapidly and virtually seamlessly in response to mission demands. Bandwidth can be scaled up or down quickly. Features and functions can be updated with a software distribution pushed out across the network.

Cybersecurity protections are built into every layer of the software-based network. They automate cyber threat prediction, detection and action. And a virtual network supports modern approaches to application development and cloud services to speed delivery of capabilities and update cybersecurity protections.


NFV moves networking function from specialized hardware to commercial, off-the-shelf equipment running mostly open source code. This can help significantly reduce cost and add considerable flexibility.

NFV allows administrators to focus on new services and capabilities instead of worrying about infrastructure limitations. It allows them to redirect resources from maintenance of old systems to innovation and new capabilities. It also supports a shift of capital allocation from capital expenditures to operational expenditures.


Networking-as-a-service (NaaS) offers DoD a rapid path to modernization. It borrows from the concept of cloud-based compute and storage capabilities. Like them, networking services are software-based and delivered from the cloud. Compute, storage and networking capabilities can be orchestrated to deliver unprecedented levels of agility and performance. The cloud-based model also allows DoD to consume these capabilities on a “pay-per-use” basis to drive further efficiencies.

Also, in the NaaS model, the network service provider manages and maintains the network for DoD. An attack on DoD facilities, such as the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, would be much less likely to cripple communications and network functionality. DoD would have the added benefit of the global network service provider’s unique visibility into the global cyberthreat landscape and its threat detection and mitigation capabilities.

In the private sector, the race is on to adopt and use these 3 new innovative networking capabilities. Any one of them would help DoD vastly improve its technology capabilities and its cyber posture. Taken together, they could help vault DoD to global technology superiority. They pave the way for improved situational awareness for command base operations. DoD network administrators would be able to deliver network-based services to the forward operating baseand warfighters on-the-fly. They also lay the groundwork for DoD to adopt cloud, 5G, edge-to-edge intelligence, AI, and robotics.

The network of the future is available to DoD now. It is software-defined, delivered as-a-service and uses network function virtualization capabilities. It can help DoD transform, modernize, improve its cyber posture, attain significant advantages over adversaries and help defend our freedoms successfully for years to come.

About the Author

Mike Leff is vice president for defense at AT&T Global Public Sector.

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