• 05.23.14

Will Drones Make The U.S. Navy Migrate To The Cloud?

One of America’s most influential think tanks feels the Navy should migrate to the cloud. Is that really a good idea?

Will Drones Make The U.S. Navy Migrate To The Cloud?
[Image: Flickr user Naval Surface Warriors]

The U.S. Navy loves sensors. The same gyrometers and motion detectors that fuel smartphones and Microsoft’s Kinect also keep drones in the skies and aircraft carriers in sharp order. But the Navy–which is the size of a large global megacorporation and also saddled with a huge bureaucracy–also has problems dealing with the flood of data that sensors create. The RAND Corporation is arguing for something unorthodox to deal with that data influx: A cloud for the Navy (PDF).


In a paper called, succinctly, “Data Flood,” think tank analyst Isaac R. Porche argues that the United States Navy needs a private cloud service to cope with the influx of data created by sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other smart military devices. Porche and his coauthors argue that there’s a precedent for creating a private cloud service for the military–the little-known fact that the NSA, CIA, and other American intelligence agencies are building their own cloud. In late October, Amazon Web Services reportedly sealed a $600 million, 10-year deal with the CIA to develop a custom cloud infrastructure for U.S. intelligence agents.

Porche and his team argue that if the Navy doesn’t adopt a cloud infrastructure, there will be a tipping point as early as 2016 where analysts will become less and less effective because bandwidth choke will prevent access to the information they need. “2016 is the year when the number of UAS (drone) systems will be high enough and generating enough sensor data/imagery to overwhelm human analysts,” Porche told Co.Labs by email.

According to RAND, as little as 5% of the data collected by Naval intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools actually reach the analysts who are using them. Because the Navy has specific challenges like getting fast Internet on board ships at sea, there are some daunting bandwidth issues for any potential Naval cloud to tackle.

And, it needs to be said, the Navy collects a ton of data. To give just one particular example from one particular slice of the Naval world, contractor Raytheon is making $8.5 million to create network-enabled sensors for electronic warfare. Their sensors will be deployed as part of a combined surveillance, communications, and electronic warfare radar system. Multiply that $8.5 million by the many other sensor-enabled projects inside the Navy’s sprawling infrastructure, and that’s a lot of money.

But there’s one big issue for the Navy–the security of cloud computing. Any sort of distributed network means that the Navy has to deal with unprecedented security issues. The Edward Snowden leaks showed that the vast infrastructure of contractors the United States government relies on for IT are an omnipresent security worry; the next Snowden might just sell their findings to a foreign intelligence agency instead of becoming a whistleblower. These are the sorts of issues that keep military IT supervisors awake at night.

There are very specific challenges in creating a cloud for the Navy as well. Porche told me that “The Navy’s cloud has to work in bandwidth poor, intermittently connected environments that are somewhat unique to their fleet forces. There would be ‘supply chain’ issues as well. Not all hardware and software developers can be trusted or used.”

However, it looks like the Navy will adopt cloud computing for their drone and sensor infrastructure sooner rather than later. Navy CIO Terry Halvorsen announced in March that the Navy is moving non-classified data to cloud servers, and the Navy also released new cloud computing guidelines last year which appear to pave the way to a cloud for classified military material.