Air Force CIO pushes for operational mindset
Network operators must work with their fronts to the flight line instead of their backs
Lt. Gen. William Lord, Air Force chief of warfighting integration and CIO, is responsible for integrating Air Force warfighting and mission support capabilities by networking space, air and terrestrial assets. Additionally, he shapes doctrine, strategy and policy for all communications and information activities.
He spoke with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about data center consolidation and cloud computing in the Air Force and how the service’s network administrators operate with their fronts to the flight line instead of their backs.
DS: What’s the No. 1 task at the top of your to-do list?
Lord: I have two No. 1s. The first would be getting after the OSD IT efficiencies work. The Air Force portion of that is about $1.2 billion of saving and modernization that we are creating through about eight kinds of initiatives.… Everything from telephone switch consolidations and data center consolidation to core e-mail services to how to buy satellite services more efficiently. So that has a lot of visibility around this building.
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The second one is what I call the aerial layer network. Think of the terrestrial network as the network that you’re used to with the Internet, perhaps at the company where you work. Think of the space network as that big network that we use for transoceanic data and voice communications. And then think about the aerial layer network. That’s like the Gogo Wi-Fi [Internet service] on an airline’s jets. How do we do that on all of our jets, only do it with weapons systems, with command and control, and with security?
In addition to the OSD IT efficiencies, it’s getting at harmonization and standardization of that aerial layer network. And then how do we do that in partnership with other service elements, our brothers and sisters in the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Army, who also have a piece of that aerial layer networks.
DS: Is that aerial network strictly a satellite network, or does it include unmanned aerial vehicles for communications relay?
Lord: That’s a combination of both. So how can the aerial layer network back up the space network if something goes awry in space? How do you continue to get precision navigation and timing? This includes more things like tactical data links between little pointy nose jets and bigger jets, and between our flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Right now, those data links and that architecture has grown up platform independent. So it’s been looked at as vertical slices.
How do you take a horizontal look at that and begin to build a network, quite frankly, that consists of servers flying between Mach 3-6? Or when you have platforms hoovering up lots of intelligent, surveillance and reconnaissance, and they are operating in denied access areas, such as when we want to be low observable — how do you dump [that ISR data] to all the other aircraft and other activities that need it when they fly out of those kinds of areas?
So it’s about homogenizing the network when it has grown up heterogeneously.
DS: Where would you say you are with that? Is it still a science project, or is there actual progress being made in creating that collaborative network?
Lord: Actually it’s a combination of both. So there are some science projects that are ongoing, but we have produced inside the Air Force a flight plan that has a methodology for getting ahead. We have that aerial layer network architecture. We have shared that with the other services. We are beginning to find some communality on what the waveforms maybe ought to be and what the message formats ought to be. We are talking about upgrading the 1553 buses, the network if you will, on each of the airborne platforms so that we can upgrade some of the devices inside the aircraft without a bunch of rewiring necessary.
DS: Like an extended 1553 data bus architecture?
Lord: Exactly. There is a little bit of science that’s required, and the Air Force Materiel Command is helping us specifically to enhance the 1553 bus. And then I think we are making great progress in sharing this common vision at high levels within each of the services.
Now because all those waveforms grew up platform dependent, you also have to get after…well, the money is in the platform programs, and going after that will be the next thing we are on.
DS: What are your thoughts on the Air Force cloud, and the larger enterprise cloud for all of the Defense Department?
Lord: I think that we will start with data center consolidation, and that will logically bring us to cloud. But I think the concern is we all are sleeping with one eye open to make sure that this just isn’t data center consolidation and server consolidation because the danger is you only get some marginal efficiency. We are getting efficiency there, but we have to see what pieces we can do as a public cloud, which pieces we still have to do as a private cloud, and then the security aspects of the cloud and what kind of data we are going to want to protect ourselves. Those things are being hashed out right now.
And so it’s sleeping with one eye open and making sure that we don’t sell ourselves too short with just data center consolidation. You know, maybe we don’t need to own all of our data on DOD installations. There are plenty of industry examples of providing highly secure cloud and data environments that I would love to put our data in. So I don’t think this is that the Air Force has to build its own cloud. Instead, it may be an Air Force-built small cloud for stuff that we are just not comfortable giving away, but at the same time, you can begin to virtualize some of the stuff that you can then pull down to a mobile device. You can begin to get around the security problem of the operating system because there is nothing residing on the operating system.
So I think the cloud may have a benefit there and may be a way for us to get at the mobile apps and mobile computing in a manner that now allows a greater mobility and at the same time doesn’t increase the security or decrease our security posture.
DS: You’ve developed a new strategy to address challenges of transitioning from more of a support organization to an operational organization. You’ve described it as having your front to the flight line instead of your back to the flight line. What does that mean?
Lord: First, a little bit of history. I think that what has happened in our Air Force is we have always been a technologically advanced force that wasn’t always networked together. As we’ve stitched those pieces together throughout warfighting integration, through more efficiencies and greater synergies that happen when you can do chat between five different ISR sensor operators, there has been a recognition that we need to stand up and protect that capability that we have now as an asymmetric advantage and potentially an asymmetric threat.
When you only need to interrupt the transmission of an ISR sensor that’s flying over an area of responsibility but is being analyzed tens of thousands of miles away, you don’t have to go to the heartened target at either end…maybe you go to the soft target that is between. So the realization that that capability is more than just an enabling or a support activity but is in fact integral to the warfighting activity is what has caused us to begin to think about the communications electronic supporting activities and cyber activities in more operational terms versus more support terms.
And so that creates the need for an operational mindset in people that heretofore have been in a support mindset. Not one right and one wrong, just two different mindsets. So we have changed the training that we give both our NCOs and our officers now in the Air Force.
When I went through comms electronic school, it was almost 50 weeks. Until recently, that was down to 6 weeks; that’s now back to 29 weeks. They have had added more of the basic skills in not only how to establish, operate, maintain and defend the domain but also a little bit about exploitation of that domain.
DS: And so that additional training is more toward the exploitational, operational side of things?
Lord: Yes, it includes more of the electronic warfare. How do you protect the SCADA systems and integrated control systems? How do you protect the work of the network, not just the network? When focused only on the network, you talk about firewalls and routers and switches and hubs. What about the applications? What about data at rest? This is the rest of the work of the network and not just the network.
DS: And I understand that a number of mission areas will be involved in this plan. Such as what?
Lord: We have been pretty open kimono about it. We think that that it requires expertise from more than just one career area. For example, the intell operators bring enormous value. The electronic warfare operators bring great value. The acquisition engineers bring value in this business. The space guys bring expertise. The air battle managers that are currently trying to manage that aerial layer network we talked about earlier…all of those folks will be included in this specialty. So we have opened the aperture to include more specialties than just the traditional communications and information skill.
DS: People can’t just stay in their lane going forward.
Lord: Yes, I think that as we lay out how you navigate your way through a successful cyber career in the Air Force that it will require cultural changes in the people that are currently stuck with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world…guys like me, guys like the current colonel GS-15-layer leadership of the Air Force. And so we have to give them a path and show them a way that they will continue to be successful in the new world in an area that’s not just about support but clearly is about daily Air Force operation. ... And that’s what we are doing.