The Air Force has several new to-do items on its cyber list after a summit of senior civilian and uniformed leaders in November.
But the answer to one of its most intriguing questions — Does anyone have a common understanding of what’s encompassed by the word “cyber” in the first place? — remains elusive.
“There are different lines of operation in cyberspace. When some people think of it, they think of the smaller parts of it like what you’re doing in your offensive and defensive capabilities, versus what you’re doing to build the network and extend the network. That’s a different element that we [previously] threw in the same bucket,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Basla, the Air Force’s chief information officer. “I think we’ll draw a clearer line and distinction between what’s required to build, operate and maintain the network and what’s required to operate on the network. I think operating on the network will be where we coalesce around our definition of cyberspace operations.”
The Air Force, Basla said, also needs to gain a better understanding of what the military as a whole will require in terms of cyber capabilities. That question, he told reporters in a media roundtable at the Pentagon on Friday, is dependent on the outcome of ongoing discussions among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he expects the chiefs and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arrive at decisions later this week that will elucidate the manpower and technology requirements of the military’s U.S. Cyber Command going forward.
“We will then understand what those demands are, what our capabilities are and we’ll address those gaps,” Basla said.
Right people, right training
The recent summit tried to answer these and several other questions, including whether the service is poised to provide the nation with the cyber talent and equipment the military will need in future years and whether Air Force commanders understand the possibilities cyber capabilities can bring to the battlefield.
Ensuring the service has the right talent is key to its future. Basla said the Air Force needs to study whether or not its cyber forces are organized properly to support Cyber Command. Currently, he said, performing cyber missions requires contributions from personnel in various functional areas across the Air Force: engineers, intelligence analysts, acquisition experts, network maintainers and many others.
“That’s really not how we’ve done business in the past,” he said. “Before, if I was a pilot, I was a pilot. In cyber, it takes a team. Are we properly organized in the Air Force to facilitate that teaming? I think that’s the question. Right now we pull from various organizations across the Air Force to put that team together.”
That team includes members who are explicitly cyber warriors, however, such as those the Air Force trains in offense and defensive cyber operations at Hurlburt Field in its 39th Information Operations Squadron.
Basla said while the quality of the training the Air Force gives incoming airmen is top-notch, it’s far from clear that the Air Force is training enough of them. He said increasing the graduate rate of the service’s cyber schoolhouses is probably necessary, but the magnitude of the increase will depend on the “demand signals” the Pentagon sends when it tells the military services more about the future of Cyber Command.
“Right now, we project we’ll meet today’s demands in the fourth quarter of 2014,” he said. “But I expect the demand signal to continue to go up. We’re going to have to go expand the throughput rate, and we’ve got some ideas on how do to do that. We might have to have 24 hour operations, we might need more bed spaces, we might need more instructors and, if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do.”
Immersion, discussion for senior leaders
Another objective of the Nov. 15 summit, Basla said, was to raise the awareness of the military’s cyber capabilities among the service’s senior uniformed leaders. The summit followed an earlier full-day immersion session for commanders at Cyber Command and the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. Md.
“We took graduate-level material and put it in a form that was understandable and could generate a high-level discussion,” he said. “We took a whole day in which there was 30 percent presentation on our part and 70 percent discussion among principals at the table. I think we made a huge step from the senior leader perspective.”
At more junior levels of the service, Basla said planners and operators already understand that cyber is an important arrow in the military’s quiver.
“We have a cyber-operations weapons instructor course at Nellis Air Force Base, just like we have for the fighter force, just like the space force, just like the nuclear force. Now we see a synergy occurring out there between the planners and the operators in our exercises,” he said. “It’s really amazing and pretty awesome. The planners now recognize that there are options out there for targets. And the targets don’t all have to be kinetic.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.