Disruptive by Design: Saving the Air Force Cyber Community
The U.S. Air Force cyber community is failing, but not all is lost. While some aspects are in dire need of repair or replacement, effective solutions potentially are within reach—if leadership is up to the task.
For starters, the Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) split of the 17D career field to 17S and 17D was mostly an insulting hand wave. Critics will note accurately that it takes time to make such broad changes across an enterprise as large as the Air Force. The language and efforts that went into the 17D split do not clearly denote purpose or establish the appropriate baseline to develop the career fields in the future. The career field update that was published identifies Network Operations (17D) and Cyber Warfare Operations (17S) as two career fields that have confusingly similar descriptions. Both “operate cyberspace weapon systems” to various degrees. The ending portion of the description characterizes a 17D as “designing, building, configuring, securing, operating, maintaining and sustaining” the environment, while a 17S is responsible for “offensive cyber operations [OCO] and defensive cyber operations [DCO].”
Taking a more traditional 33S role for network operations would lead to a better focus on what skills are needed and what the mission is. Those in the 17D career field are no more operators than aircraft maintenance personnel but are equally vital. This fascination with calling everyone an operator has led to both AFSCs being functionally controlled by the A-6 with a lack of training differentiation. Personnel designated 17S will be able to complete a “Phase 3” at Undergraduate Cyberspace Training (UCT), which is a strong move in the right direction. However, the bulk of the training is common, whereas the skill sets of all OCO- and DCO-type missions are expected to be established in a much shorter time period.
The Air Force has shown through its actions that it considers cyber skills all the same, with the most granular separation being described as offense, defense or intelligence. The Air Force champions cyberspace as a domain but treats the skill sets as a binary system. You either have cyber skills or you do not. Unfortunately, this lack of specialization, functional separation and training investment adds confusion that will hamper the mission.
Another problem is the mission does not match investment. Because of challenges with identification and training, cyber operators consistently are investing their personal time to educate themselves and develop their skills. Largely, the community has bought into the idea of flying, fighting and winning in cyberspace. Spending time on personal development after work and using off-duty hours to train is abnormal in the Air Force, but it has led to many highly trained and passionate cyber operators. The Air Force at times would like to take credit for this, but it leads to wrong suggestions that enter staff room discussions about extended commitments to retain talent.
Extended commitments make sense in career fields such as the pilot community, where world-class training is delivered over a long period of time to the operators who mostly will enjoy operational assignments until they begin to transition to field-grade officers. Extended commitments do not make sense in the current cyber environment. The big challenge for the Air Force will be having highly trained operators who are participating in missions often hampered by bureaucracy and loosely defined norms and terminology. Currently, it is easier to get approval to kill someone than it is to drop a network router. It is easier to buy a multimillion-dollar acquisition than it is to get approval to enforce appropriate network security measures. It is easier for the Air Force to lose its talent than it is to retain it because of mismanagement and misunderstandings of the community.
To move forward constructively, leaders at all levels must voice their concerns accurately. The community needs more informed critics who also remain optimistic and loyal to the mission. Decisions will be made, and ways forward must be executed even when they are not perfect. But issues must be voiced.
Senior leaders who hear consistently that everything is OK are hidden from the harsh truths that will lead to mission failure. Senior leaders who believe that cyber operators are highly trained and world-class because of investment and training by the Air Force are being misled. Company-grade officers who are telling senior leaders that everything is fine or “at least getting better” are failing in their duties to champion enlisted operator issues and pave a better way forward. Those happy with the status quo cannot honestly look to the threats the community faces and statements of concern from leaders such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say that all is well.
Strategies will be developed, weapon systems will be leveraged and personnel will be trained, on- or off-duty. The level of commitment from the Air Force to these facts through appropriate investment of resources and the enabling of informed and disruptive leaders will determine the rate at which mission success is achieved. It also will determine the rate at which it loses or retains talent. If the community is traveling in the right direction, then it is at best failing in its vector.
Capt. Robert M. Lee, USAF, is a U.S. Air Force cyber warfare operations officer and a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. The views stated in this column are his alone and do not represent the views or opinions of the U.S. government, the Defense Department or the Air Force.