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When it comes to delivering today's
Modern Defense Network,
Mike Leff is a man on a mission.

MIKE LEFF is helping the DoD chart its course through a rapidly changing security environment.

Leff, a licensed pilot, serves as Vice President of the AT&T Public Sector for Defense. He sees the Department of Defense grappling with global instability and a rise in nontraditional adversaries and asymmetric warfare. The nature of conflict is becoming more unpredictable. The DoD needs to become more nimble and modernize its capabilities for force projection. 

“The DoD must constantly balance the requirements of force structure, readiness and modernization. It needs to become as potent in the virtual and cyber realms as it is currently with kinetic force projection,” Leff said at a recent event sponsored by Government Executive. “That means net-centric warfare, which requires a next-generation network to support our forces today. The DoD must innovate faster than the enemy in a challenging budgetary climate. That’s where we stand ready to help our military, by leveraging a company that is a 142-year-old institution.”

Leff shared with the audience that as far back as World War I and into World War II, Bell Labs began working on radar and military communication systems, as well as other key inventions around semiconductor devices, two-way radios and sonar devices.

The DoD network of today was built by defense contractors, not network providers. In large part, it was conceived and implemented over the past two decades. During that time, changes in large enterprises and commercial investments have resulted in significant new technologies that alter the nature of the modern network. 

The DoD network actually comprises roughly 15,000 separate networks, built by hundreds of different companies. The networks that serve our warfighters are some of the most complicated in the world. As a result, the network transformation challenge faced by the DoD dwarfs that of any other organization in the world. With the government spending between 70 to 90 percent of IT budgets on maintaining legacy systems, there simply is no way for private, purpose-built networks to catch up to global network providers.

From 2012 to 2016, AT&T invested more than $140B in our networks — more than any other public company.

Newer technologies such as Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) have transformed commercial networks. Increasingly, software is replacing hardware in network infrastructure, adding unprecedented levels of capacity and flexibility. Many of the Fortune 1000 make use of these technologies for their networking requirements—many are AT&T customers. 

SDN fuses together multiple networking technologies and accelerates innovative capabilities. Software makes it so much easier to add new capacity that much of today’s purpose-built hardware, such as routers and firewalls, will soon go the way of phone booths and movie stores. AT&T aims to have 75% of traffic on their software-defined network by 2020, and pushing hard to beat that goal.

In contrast to commercial networks, the DoD continues to rely upon an analog, premises-based circuit-switched infrastructure. It requires constant hardware maintenance and upgrades. The present network architecture has inherent limitations that prevent it from accommodating rapid data growth and responding to changes in tasking or mission. This is partially due to the security technology available at the time the network was designed. 

But times have changed. For an example of transformative change, look at how virtualization fundamentally changed infrastructure capacity and cost. Virtual machines exponentially increased the power and efficiency of servers, which then rippled out and changed how data centers were constructed. 

The network the Army has is not the network it needs to confront the changing face of warfare.
Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford, CIO // U.S. Army // August 2017

This created the foundation of the migration to cloud computing. Suddenly companies could build out their networks faster and at far less cost, while developing new products and services much faster. First computing, then storage moved out of its separate silo and became something delivered as a service, as opposed to proprietary hardware. Networking was the final silo to evolve to a Networking-as-a-Service (NaaS) model. These changes didn’t happen overnight. They moved forward in steady increments that can be replicated by the DoD. 

Security technology has also evolved greatly over the past decade. When virtual private networks (VPNs) first came into use, there was concern about data leakage. Today, AT&T provides enterprise-grade dedicated connections at the Layer 3 networking level, using Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), delivering security with massive scalability. The AT&T network is in 190 countries and sees an average of five billion vulnerability scans every day—meaning the company sees what the bad guys are doing before anyone else.

Leveraging this network would allow the DoD to build an application aware VPN to link its locations and efficiently transport voice, data and video over a single connection. And in the cases where even more security is required, AT&T is the only approved provider of the NSA Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) program. 

It’s inevitable that the DoD will increasingly look to commercial providers to help transform its network. It’s a natural part of what’s known as the Third Offset strategy, the quest to maintain a clear technological advantage over any potential adversary. For decades, American forces have possessed this advantage in every conflict. Today, the network is the platform that supports the projection of military capability around the world, and it needs to leverage proven commercial innovations to maintain that superiority.

This model already exists for weapons systems. Would the DoD ever build a new fighter jet themselves, bypassing the major defense contractors? Of course not, and it should be the same when building the DoD network of the future. When the DoD is ready to transform its IT infrastructure, it needs to talk to the company that handles one-third of global internet traffic. Data traffic on the AT&T network has increased 250,000 percent since 2007, and the AT&T backbone network carries more than 186 petabytes of data traffic on an average business day.

There are some signs this realization is taking hold. Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley has shown a willingness to talk to industry about improving the Army’s flagship battlefield network, known as WIN-T. Gen. Milley himself has publicly stated that WIN-T currently is too “fragile and vulnerable” for potential conflicts against near-peer adversaries.

In many ways, Leff’s career has tracked the evolution of the IT marketplace. With degrees in electrical engineering, mathematics, and applied Information Technology, he began his career working on C4ISR systems. Later he spent 14 years with a large system integrator, helping to build complex systems for the public sector. And now that the “Everything-as-a-Service” model has become ascendant in both the private and public sectors, he is leading the effort to put the most advanced network in the world to work for the DoD. 

The DoD must innovate faster than the enemy in a challenging budgetary climate. That’s where we stand ready to help...
Mike Leff, Vice President, Defense // AT&T Public Sector

“AT&T is a software company now. AT&T is in the midst of a massive reskilling effort, bringing its workforce along as we are moving into a world driven by things like artificial intelligence, machine learning and virtual reality,” said Leff. “The IoT is emerging, with 25 to 35 billion devices estimated to be online by 2020. The current DoD network isn’t ready and can no longer assure decisional advantage, as more senior officers are recognizing. Taking advantage of the global network we’ve built over the past decade on a NaaS basis is the best way to dramatically transform the DoD’s IT capabilities.”

Leading the AT&T defense business is a demanding role, but Leff finds time for family, his flying passion and other pursuits, like martial arts. But today, the mission is improving the DoD’s IT posture. Leff and his team are focused on putting an American institution and a decade of technological investment and innovation at the disposal of the DoD. The security environment has changed, and the DoD needs to ensure that warfighters will always possess a network second to none. 



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