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An Air Force In Transition Adjusts for the Cyber Age

The U.S. Air Force is striving to become a multi-domain warfighting unit in the air, in space and in cyber, according to its chief information officer. However, attaining the same degree of supremacy in cyber that it currently enjoys in the air domain may prove a far more daunting task.

As do its sister services, the Air Force operates under a decades-old, traditional model. That model does not serve information technology needs well, and the issue has become more crucial as cyber continues to increase in importance.

Cyberspace is both operational and manmade, points out Lt. Gen. William J. Bender, USAF, Air Force chief information officer/A-6. Accordingly, the importance of the cyberspace domain is on a par with that of air and space. For the Air Force to move forward, it has “an absolute requirement to think differently,” he states.

“The Air Force is bridging a change from the industrial age to the information age,” Gen. Bender declares. “We are a little out of step in that we’re in the information age, but we haven’t transitioned the Air Force yet fully from the industrial age. That will take thinking differently. It’s about the ability to correlate data; form information; organize that information in a way that gives us a better level of understanding; and eventually … how you operate in the information age that is the equivalent of information warfare.

“We still need to remain the best Air Force of the industrial age, but at the same time we have to recognize that the environment around us has changed to the information age,” he continues. “Now it becomes more in terms of how are you going to take advantage of the cyber domain best—in a way that can take advantage of opportunities and be better, faster and smarter than the enemy.”

The key for the Air Force to achieve that goal of dual supremacy is to begin the evolution of learning to think differently, Gen. Bender states. “While the environment is rapidly changing, we must recognize that it is not purely a matter of security that we must be concerned about; it also is a great opportunity for us. If we rely on the OODA model—observe, orient, decide and act—faster than the enemy because we’ve done a better job of managing our data and turning it into knowledge, then in fact we can own the information age in a way that the Air Force currently owns the industrial age.”

The Air Force must come to a better understanding of the cyber domain, the general continues. This domain differs from air and space to a greater degree than those two differ from each other, but the manmade domain of cyber presents different opportunities, especially in that it can be manipulated. “We’re trying to recognize that … the cyber domain and its unique challenges on the security side and opportunities on the information warfare side are different than what we’ve operated in the past,” he emphasizes. Air Force command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) has two top priorities, Gen. Bender says. The first is to transition the information technology infrastructure to the future Joint Information Environment (JIE). This process will take the infrastructure from an Air Force architecture to a joint single-security architecture. This is important both from a mission perspective—it is the way the Air Force will fight in the future—and from an efficiency perspective, he offers.

The second priority is the transformation of the Air Force work force relative to the JIE. A number of ongoing initiatives involve the standup and development of cyber mission forces, and these are connected to the JIE transition. The general says the JIE, as it is conceived, would allow the Air Force to repurpose individuals assigned to the commodity side of cyber, such as operating email servers.

For example, the legacy mission of a communications squadron largely has been consolidated and centralized through the 24th Air Force. Some of the roles airmen now serve can be replaced through cloud technologies or data center consolidation using commercial capabilities. Gen. Bender suggests that some of these airmen could transition from information technology support to missions that involve defending the networks and other cyber operations, including advising commanders on cybervulnerabilities.

This work force transformation is the biggest near-term challenge, the general avers. The JIE will provide a dividend in the repurposed work force, and this is an important underpinning to the Air Force’s ability to transform its C4ISR. But the service still must pay attention to its legacy communications and networks while developing this new cyber-savvy work force, he warrants.

The blending of cyber and air operations is strong with the Air Force’s F-35. In addition to being a multirole fighter aircraft, the F-35 also is a flying multisensor platform. Its sensor data will be part of any Air Force ISR network, but that architecture remains to be configured, particularly with the JIE looming. Gen. Bender offers that the JIE will need to take into account the F-35 instead of the F-35’s data architecture being configured for the enterprise network.

“It’s the JIE that must meet the needs of the platform, as opposed to the other way around,” he declares. “The JIE is the next evolution of our information technology infrastructure, and there are unique challenges with a state-of-the-art system both in terms of bandwidth and sensor integration.

“One of the things we need to be cognizant of is ensuring that our development of infrastructure and eventual next-generation information technology needs to be conducive of a high-sensor-specific platform,” he continues. “I’m not sure that we’re there now, but we certainly have to be.”

The Air Force is developing a data management strategy for the F-35’s ISR information. The volume of ISR data currently flowing across Air Force networks “is beyond our capability to process,” Gen. Bender allows. So, the F-35 probably will provide raw data to the network early in its deployment, but over time data may be fused to some extent.

The constantly changing defense environment, coupled with rapid technology evolution, place the Air Force at a disadvantage when it tries to operate with a methodical “1947 corporate process,” Gen. Bender states. Because the process is unresponsive to the existing environment, the result is systems such as the JIE, which is not a program of record with formal funding. “We need to do a better job of treating information technology … as a cost of doing business—pay yourself first,” he declares.

The overarching budget environment, with its budget controls looming in the background, hinders planning and programming, the general says. These numbers are too low for Air Force C4ISR requirements, he says. “There are more requirements than we have budget authority, so all choices are tough at this point.”

His short-term budget concerns include the joint regional security stacks and the foundational work needed to advance the JIE and its joint single security architecture. Lacking a program of record, these efforts are unfunded and must compete in a disadvantaged environment in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016. The general adds that the Air Force has done some work to fold in these efforts as a program of record in fiscal year 2017, which would help in the competition for funding.

He points out the funding strategy is joint, which involves all of the services. All must meet their commitments, he states.

In the future, Air Force information technology must feature a balance between agility and affordability, and private sector solutions will play a big role. Areas such as commercial cloud computing services and commercial data center consolidation will offer significant efficiencies, Gen. Bender points out. Other commercial information technologies the Air Force will exploit include mobile capabilities, smart devices and big data analytics, he says.

On the high end of cyber, a convergence of operations, intelligence and information technology works for operational aspects. A partnership among the A-2, the A-3 and the A-6 at the air staff level focuses on developing and operationalizing cyberweapons of the future, the general reports.

This partnership does not portend a major reorganization of these Air Force elements, as did happen in the Navy. Gen. Bender offers that he sees no such reorganization for the near term, but the long-term future may hold the potential for an Air Force information command combining cyber and intelligence. He does not foresee this taking place for at least a decade, he says. “Everybody has reorganization fatigue for the time being.”