AFCEA Celebrates 75 Years of Innovation, Strength and Engagement
The 75th anniversary, which AFCEA celebrates this year, is traditionally known as the diamond anniversary. As the hardest natural substance on Earth, diamonds represent strength, resolve and durability.
It is a fitting metaphor for an organization that has supported the U.S. national security and defense community since 1946, as the nation emerged, stronger than ever, from the devastation of World War II.
Seventy-five years ago, in a meeting area in the Fraunces Tavern in New York, a group of respected military and corporate leaders gathered to discuss a shared concern, one that was on the minds of many in the aftermath of war.
These leaders recognized the challenges of not only continuing to advance the improved communications and electronics capabilities that had resulted from the war effort but also of ensuring that military and industry organizations remained in a strong partnership, one that would lead to preparedness for the future.
In simple terms, the goal of the meeting was not to predict the future but to secure it. The leaders gathered to form a new organization that would support global defense and security in ways that would transcend the decades. This organization would eventually become the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, now known as AFCEA, and it would empower those in military and industry to advance technology and ensure security by opening channels for collaboration.
As the meeting proceeded, a letter from U.S. President Harry S. Truman set the tone, acknowledging the organization as one for fostering “industrial preparedness, which must buttress the future security of our country.” Army Chief Signal Officer Maj. Gen. Harry C. Ingles, USA, addressed the attendees, and Brig. Gen David Sarnoff, USAR, who became AFCEA’s first president, also spoke. Gen. Sarnoff led a distinguished broadcasting career that culminated in his service as chairman of the board of RCA. AFCEA’s founders also included Darryl F. Zanuck, a renowned 20th Century Fox movie producer who covered action in North Africa, and Fred Friendly, who became president of CBS News.
From the association’s foundational interests in the areas of communications and electronics, AFCEA has expanded to address changing needs and now supports disciplines such as defense, homeland security, intelligence, cybersecurity, cyber defense and space. Because the association is a nonprofit organization and does not lobby, it has built a long and respected history of creating networking and engagement opportunities between government and military.
As a public institution, AFCEA has a responsibility, as do other professional associations of like nature, to speak out for the highest ethical standards, said Dr. Jon L. Boyes, Vice Adm., USN, (Ret.), while serving as AFCEA president. Adm. Boyes led the organization from 1977 to 1987, resulting in its expansion as an international organization, the establishment of the AFCEA Educational Foundation (see page 40) and the building of AFCEA’s headquarters offices.
Adm. Boyes described AFCEA as a nonpartisan and ethical opportunity for industry and government command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) professionals to meet and exchange ideas on how to provide better C3I in the most efficient manner. “This interface is done without special privilege or commitments and within an environment sensitive to the proprietary interest of industries and the security requirements of governments,” he said.
Gen. John Wickham Jr., USA (Ret.), who followed Adm. Boyes as the association’s head from 1987-1992, built on the strong ethical platform of his predecessor. During his term, he emphasized that “AFCEA has an obligation to represent equitably and responsibly the diverse interests not only of its corporate and individual members but also of the professional communities and organizations in which they operate.”
AFCEA has existed for 75 years to support its members and the communities they support and continues today as it has in the past. While leading the association, Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.), AFCEA president and CEO from 2001-2007, concisely described what AFCEA does. “The key word that describes our association is ‘service,’” he said. “This includes service to our members and our sponsors as well as service to the freedom-loving, democratic nations around the world that have AFCEA members and chapters.
“Since 1946, AFCEA has prided itself on the role it plays in being a conduit between government and industry. Our association has served to help move the finest technology offered by the Free World into the hands of its warfighters. This has been accomplished because of the ethical environment that AFCEA creates to allow frank ‘roll-up-the-sleeves’ dialogue. This environment enables government to be exposed to the great advances that information technology is making in the commercial sector,” explained then-AFCEA President Adm. Browne.
AFCEA’s ability to serve is unique among defense and security associations. It operates internationally through both a U.S and a European office. The office in Brussels, Belgium, which opened in 1981, helps manage AFCEA’s global events and international chapters, and it supports the association’s close ties to NATO (see page 37).
The headquarters office in Fairfax, Virginia, oversees organizational and membership needs, including events, media and education. It also assists the 140 chapters operating around the world. The AFCEA Educational Foundation and the National Intelligence University Foundation also are supported from the headquarters. The Educational Foundation, established more than 40 years ago, in partnership with chapters, contributes more than $2 million in scholarships each year.
AFCEA has been based in Fairfax for 35 years. In 1986, under Adm. Boyes’ leadership, the organization purchased land and built its headquarters offices, becoming one of the first businesses in one of the first high technology office parks in that area. In 2019, AFCEA sold its aging facility and moved the staff to 4114 Legato Road, taking advantage of more modern office space just over a mile away from the old building. The decision provides more flexibility for AFCEA in supporting its chapters, members and constituents. In addition, the new facility enabled the organization to upgrade its technology infrastructure.
The headquarters of AFCEA International conducts more than 20 conferences, most in locations near the customer, which reduces expenses and cuts down on travel for military and government attendees. It also holds smaller events and webinars, including some developed to help AFCEA’s small business corporate members. Many of the chapters also hold events in their local areas. Professional development courses, online classes, continuing education credits and relationships with preferred educational providers are other offerings that help members grow their careers, and affinity partnerships help the association’s corporate members access business services at affordable rates.
AFCEA’s SIGNAL Magazine, which began publication in September 1946, is provided to members monthly in the format of their choice, and the SIGNAL Media website offers news and blogs relevant to AFCEA’s areas of interest. The SIGNAL Media brand also includes a variety of newsletters, webinars, websites, The Cyber Edge writing contest and executive videos. It also publishes SIGNAL Kids, a magazine aimed at exciting the younger generation about science, technology, engineering and math.
More than 75 years after the Free World vanquished two global enemies of freedom, the risks and challenges have changed, but they have not diminished. AFCEA has responded by changing too and providing new products and continued support to the community it serves.
As the far-reaching and long-term implications of the pandemic became clear in 2020, AFCEA had already begun assisting military and government in disseminating essential information that would help industry continue operations. In addition to participating in weekly meetings with senior government officials, including many focused on helping small business, AFCEA moved its events online and expanded webinars and other online products to support engagement needs within a new paradigm.
While AFCEA focused on supporting its members’ interests during this time, it also was going through its own adjustments, with staff switching overnight from an office to a remote work environment. As the entire world was facing an experience few people had navigated before, AFCEA relied on its innovation, flexibility and relationships to continue to accomplish its mission during challenging times, showing strength, resolve and durability. These core competencies are invaluable, and they enabled the association to quickly step in to bridge gaps exposed by COVID-19 and resulting societal challenges.
“When I joined the AFCEA team, I quickly realized that the staff was highly dedicated in its service to the mission, our members and constituents. This was never more evident than during this past 17 months. The AFCEA staff came through in a most impressive manner, turning the pressure from each challenge into a strength, a fitting reflection on the diamond anniversary we celebrate this year. The dangers and challenges we face today did not slow down during the pandemic, and AFCEA did not slow down either. As a result, we were ready to resume conferences as soon as the venues were ready. We just completed TechNet Augusta, our first large in-person event since March 2020. We have hit the ground running, and look forward to embracing the opportunities on the horizon,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Shea, USMC (Ret.), AFCEA’s current president and CEO, who has led the organization since 2014.
The members of AFCEA in 2021, just like those represented in 1946 by several prominent figures meeting in a tavern, are the problem solvers and business builders who continue to move at the breakneck speed of technology.
Diamonds are not formed overnight, and neither is a successful organization such as AFCEA. With age comes wisdom, strength and perspective.