Warfighting Through Data-Centricity

Outmaneuvering through Information

Information is a critical element of all military operations. This should not surprise us as our observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loops are fed by, make sense of, and inevitably generate information. Data is the fundamental building block of information, and one can increase the value of that data by adding additional context or fusing it with other data to convey a greater meaning to the viewer. For example, to an aviator, individual pieces of data such as airspeed, altitude, heading, and navigational data are all important for any given mission, and they can be fused to convey more information via a heads-up display. With this rudimentary data analysis and display, a heads-up display can accelerate an aviator’s OODA loop by conveying the needed data in one location, integrated with mission-specific alerts, which provides them with an information advantage. As described in MCDP 8, Information, using the right information can create decision, temporal, spatial, and other information advantages that can allow friendly forces to outmaneuver an adversary, which is vital based on the threats posed by peer adversaries.1

One of the greatest challenges on the modern battlefield is the time compression introduced by long-range, high-speed weapons and their ability to hold U.S. assets at risk.2 This sentiment of Wayne Hughes echoes throughout recent Marine Corps publications, including Force Design and A Concept for Stand-in Forces. The anticipated character of this future conflict necessitates the ability to rapidly observe, orient, and decide so the necessary actions can be taken within the time constraints introduced by enemy weapons. The longer any one of these processes takes, the longer it will take to complete an OODA cycle, which increases the difficulty of gaining a decision advantage.

The interrelationship between observation and orientation is critical in managing the time required to complete OODA cycles. If the data observed by a Marine is not managed in some way, the sheer amount of available data in a given situation, whether relevant or not, will slow the orientation phase because the Marine must discern what is and is not relevant and then attempt to make sense of what is deemed relevant. If instead the observed information was curated and formatted based on the needs of the Marine, the time taken by observation and orientation could shrink dramatically.

Friction, uncertainty, and complexity also tend to slow this process, and while this fog of war will never abate, it may be possible to lift some of the fog. If Marines can maintain access to relevant and trustworthy data, formatted on mission-specific displays it can provide the opportunity for continued situational awareness and lift some of the fog.

To succeed within this anticipated character of war requires technical change in our systems as well as operational changes in how we generate, share, and utilize that data to achieve the desired benefits in competition and conflict. The innovation required to achieve a faster relative tempo than our adversaries reside in the idea of data-centricity. This article first describes data-centricity and what it means to the Marine Corps from a doctrinal perspective. After making the linkage to doctrine, the article concludes with ways to implement data-centricity and some examples of what operational benefits could be gained. Please note that many of the examples provided are aspirational to show what is in the realm of the possible. Additionally, I intentionally use vague terms at times so Marines of every MOS can connect these thoughts to the systems they use to complete their mission.

Figure 1. Boyd’s OODA Loop with a time component.3 (Figure provided by author.)

What Is Data-Centricity?
The definition of data-centricity utilized by the DOD is “an architectural approach that results in a secure environment separating data from applications and making data available to a broad range of tools and analytics within and across security domains for enrichment and discovery.”In simple terms, this means that individual networks or information systems are enablers instead of the main effort. For example, GCSS-MC, M-SHARP, and NALCOMIS OOMA still play a critical role in data generation and storage; however, perhaps a greater value is when that data is fused and analyzed between systems and used to formulate decisions. Perhaps the data in each of those systems could contribute to a model that would reduce the time required to fulfill aircraft parts orders.

This approach enables Marines to utilize all useful data, regardless of system, to facilitate every warfighting function and solve operational problems. A Marine would need access to myriad systems if they wanted specific information pertaining to command and control, fires, force protection, information, intelligence, logistics, and maneuver for a given mission. In a data-centric framework, where the concern is providing access to data in these areas, Marines at all levels can have access to key information that is typically reserved for the combat operations center. It provides an avenue for fulfilling John Boyd’s belief that “technology and concepts should empower the person, not the other way around.”In this case, implementing data-centricity enables Marines to make decisions in a distributed environment when friction and uncertainty abound.

Collectively known as VAULTIS, a data-centric approach makes data visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure. Data needs to be exposed to a secure environment, so it is visible to authorized users. Those users must be able to access the data to leverage it. Users must be able to understand what the data means in terms of its content, context, and applicability to a given problem set. Data must be linked using data formats and metadata tagging to uncover relationships. The data must be trustworthy by coming from an authoritative data source so that one can be confident in the data and insights derived from it. Data must be interoperable to maintain the semantic and syntactic meaning of the data; otherwise, one risks spurious conclusions. Finally, the data must be secure and free from unauthorized use or manipulation.6

This is an evolution from the current framework, where data is tied to applications, and the application’s capabilities limit the secure utilization of the data. This limits the ability of Marines to utilize the data because exposing the data to advanced analytics and merging it with other relevant data becomes a tedious process of exporting, rationalizing, and importing data. From an operational perspective, it limits the ability of commanders to see inputs from multiple systems in a single integrated common operational picture. In both cases, the architectural framework limits the utility of data and hinders the development of advanced algorithms to include artificial intelligence and machine learning because of the limited amount of data and computing power available.

A data-centric approach can provide an information advantage by reducing the time required to arrive at well-informed decisions, thus increasing the tempo of one’s OODA loop. According to MCDP 1, “Time is a critical factor in effective decisionmaking–often the most important factor. A key part of effective decisionmaking is realizing how much decision time is available and making the most of that time. Whoever can make and implement decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage.”Our systems can help make decisions faster by leveraging the right data and applying the right context to it to accelerate the decision-making process. In terms of OODA loops, these systems work within the observation process so that when a commander observes information, it is presented and formatted to speed the orientation process and convey a more accurate mental model for a decision.

Facilitating decision making at the lowest level is imperative given the emerging character of warfare that necessitates decentralized operations. Customized common operational pictures should not only be available at the command post but to the Marines executing the mission as well. The decentralized nature of Marine Corps operations necessitates that Marines have access to as much information as is helpful and formatted in a manner that aids in mission execution.

Implementing Data-Centricity
For the Marine Corps to realize the benefits related to data-centricity, it must innovate within existing paradigms. One of Williamson Murray’s conclusions in Military Innovation During the Interwar Period was that the most important innovations impacted the context or character of the conflict. Within that volume, Alan Beyerchen proposed three key changes typically occurring for successful innovation. First, new equipment, systems, or devices initiate a technical change. Second is an operational change that refers to how the technical change can be utilized and integrated into other standard operating procedures. Finally, technological change is the resultant “context emerging from the interaction of technical and operational change with each other and the environment.”8 As this relates to data-centricity, the capabilities must harmonize with Marine Corps operations to out-maneuver an adversary.

Given that data-centricity is an architectural approach and not a solution in and of itself, the technical changes required span a wide array of efforts. Make no mistake, while some of these efforts sound simple, budgetary constraints, dependencies, technical complexity, and myriad other challenges abound. The following list is just an example of some of the high-level tasks that can improve data-centricity. Ensuring the visibility of data means hosting data sources (cloud, on-premises, tactical edge) so they can be exposed to platforms such as Jupiter, Advana, and Bolt or integrated into applications like Tactical Assault Kit. Perhaps the greatest issue of assuring data access is ensuring resilient, high-bandwidth network transport whether that be provided by satellite communications, fiber optic cables, or other terrestrial means. While this can be challenging for the Marine Corps to execute, this is further complicated when one attempts to extend visibility and access at the joint and coalition levels. This is the heart of Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control.

Establishing data catalogs, data formatting, and tagging standards are critical for understanding and linking data while ensuring interoperability. This sounds simple, but at the technical level, this can become complicated. Application programming interfaces can enable data to be shared between disparate systems; however, certain systems may need to be modernized to meet certain constraints of that system. To realize the benefits at the tactical edge, programs of record need to modernize not only to share data within an established framework but also so they can evolve as needed based on interoperability with the joint and combined force. Additionally, the data from those systems should be accessible and customizable on handheld devices powered by software such as ATAK.

One element of the operational change refers to how the capabilities can be utilized. At a high level, this means improving how we operate based on the ability to leverage data. For example, could predictive logistics algorithms create a heavier logistics push construct to make the most efficient use of surface and air transport? Could advances in the Manpower Information Technology Systems Modernization drive changes in manpower policy and the way in which boards, assignments, and retention are conducted? Any of these can prove true, but as a Service, we must be willing to evolve the way we operate based on the technical capabilities available.

Another element of operational change relates to how Marines interact with systems to generate data. Marines need to understand that the inputs they make into a given system can have downstream impacts on decision making. For example, if an aviation maintenance department wanted to discover ways to improve readiness by gaining maintenance efficiencies, they could compare data in NALCOMIS OOMA with other relevant data from M-SHARP and other databases. However, if Marines do not log their maintenance time appropriately on a maintenance action form (MAF), it will lead to false conclusions regarding the time to complete MAF. If pilots do not accurately log their flight time or generate MAFs, the resulting data may not reflect reality. In other words, if data is of poor quality, it will either be discarded from analysis which reduces the data points, or it will lead to spurious conclusions. Simply put, if one inputs garbage, the result will be garbage.

The synergy between the technical changes and operational changes can create technological changes that sometimes asymmetrically change the context of our operations. Access to relevant information, formatted in a mission-specific manner when provided to distributed forces, could introduce a new level of maneuver and agility to outpace a more rigid adversary.

History demonstrates that institutions that had an appropriate grasp on the concept of future warfare and were able to balance a better fit between technologies, concepts, doctrine, and organizational change ultimately succeeded over adversaries who failed to do so.The benefits of data-centricity align with the roots of maneuver warfare by enabling Marines to generate speed and tempo by decreasing the time to execute OODA loops. Achieving this benefit requires significant investment in an array of technical and operational changes. Some of these changes can be made at the Service level, but many more require Marines at each echelon to innovate within their command to utilize these capabilities. Implementing data-centricity should not be seen as a buzzword but rather a means to implement elements of Warfighting and prepare ourselves as a Service for the next conflict—wherever that may find us engaged in competition, crisis, or conflict.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 8, Information, (Washington, DC: 2022).

2. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

3. Adapted from John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, ed. Grant T. Hammond (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2018).

4. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “The Intelligence Community Data Management Lexicon,” DNI.gov, January 5, 2022, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/IC_Data_Management_Lexicon.pdf. It should be noted that the use of this definition was directed by the DOD Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer in a memorandum dated 1 September 2023.

5. Ian Brown, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2018).

6. Department of Defense, DOD Data Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2020).

7. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997).

8. Williamson Murray and Alan Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).