Southcom Searching For Secure Comms, Long-Range Sensors

By Laura Heckmann

Marine Corps photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Southern Command’s area of responsibility encompasses 31 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean Sea, which makes it challenging to keep its forces securely connected and its sensors pointed in the right direction, its commander said.

“In the information environment, we’re in conflict, not just strategic competition,” Southcom Commander Army Gen. Laura Richardson said during a panel discussion at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in October.

The Western Hemisphere is “inextricably linked to our national security and homeland,” and the number one pacing challenge is the People’s Republic of China, Richardson said.

Given what she called Southcom’s “huge” area of responsibility, the ability to “see threats” and “know when threats are in our region is very important.”

To do that, the command will need to modernize its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology, Air Force Brig. Gen. Craig McPike, the command’s deputy director of operations, said during the panel.

“ISR is one of our main techniques and procedures that we go after to make sure that we’re able to see, hear and detect anything that’s moving out there,” he said.

Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Dustin Shultz, the command’s director of intelligence, called current ISR assets “limited” and “constrained” within the theater.

McPike said ISR technology needs to be modernized, “or maybe even [pushed] forward to more … long-range ISR platforms,” such as solar or hydrogen powered.

The advanced sensors Southcom is looking for will provide the capability to “ingest a lot more information,” but the command will need artificial intelligence and machine learning to help process it, he added.

Shultz said another ISR consideration is data sharing with partners that are not close allies. Sharing information securely means a secure network, and achieving that will require a zero trust approach and data centricity, Army Col. Anne-Marie Wiersgalla, the command’s director of communications, said.

McPike said cybersecurity is a “big problem” in Southcom’s area of responsibility. “We have to secure these networks.”

Wiersgalla said zero trust and data centricity are two of five foundational concepts of the Defense Department’s larger connectivity goal known as Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control, “to execute globally integrated operations around the world.”

At its core, zero trust “assumes no implicit trust is granted to assets or users based solely on their physical network or location,” according to the Defense Department.

In the past, “we’ve developed walled gardens,” Wiersgalla said. “We have to get beyond those … to data-centric solutions based in a zero trust environment so that the people who need to have the information, and only the people who need to have the information, have the access.”

“If we develop a network … using data as the centric solution instead of the network, I know who’s on that network, based on their identity or their role, they have access to that information,” she said.

Wiersgalla said the command is looking to partner with academia and industry to “build that data-centric joint operating environment, so that we can share the right information with the right people at the right time.”

Examples of work Southcom is already doing include its Wickr Recall, Alert and Messaging pilot — an application that can be installed on a computer or a personal cellphone and used “to message a mission partner … and have a level of trust that that information is secure up to the [Controlled Unclassified Information] level,” she said.

It is also exploring a partnership with the Defense Information Systems Agency to look at Thunderdome — DISA’s zero trust environment.

“No more walled gardens,” Wiersgalla said. “Fences make great neighbors, but they don’t help us when we have common interests.” ND

Topics: Defense Department, Battlefield Communications

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