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The Air Force Has a 17-D Training Gap Issue

Leaders say the service is not doing enough to prepare airmen whose careers focus on cyber, networking and communications.

In today’s complex operating environment, airmen specializing in networking, communications and cyberspace operations need a more robust training regimen throughout their careers. The U.S. Air Force is not doing enough to prepare these specialists for future roles as chief operating officers or as so-called A-6s, officers in charge of preparing for or conducting communication and information operations. The service needs to do a much better job, according to a panel of A-6 leaders from several Air Force major commands.

The A-6 leaders, who spoke yesterday at the AFCEA Rocky Mountain Chapter’s annual Cyberspace Symposium, held February 21-24, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, talked specifically about the service’s so-called 17-D airmen who either conduct network communications, expeditionary communications, offensive or defensive cyberspace operations.

“I love our career field and I don’t mean to be pejorative, but do we do enough training for our 17-Deltas, if we're going to see them as an A-6 [in the future],” said Col. Heather Blackwell, USAF, the A-6 for the service’s Air Combat Command; the director of Cyberspace and Information Dominance; and the chief information officer (CIO), Headquarters Air Combat Command.

Col. Scott Angerman, USAF, advised Air Force leaders to take a more holistic approach for career path preparations for those specialists.

“When I looked at it from my background, in my current job at the AETC [Air Education and Training Command], the service’s force development command, we look at it from a standpoint of what do we have to do to prepare,” Col. Angerman clarified. “But I think there is a talent management aspect to this as well. If you backward engineer from CIO, you’ve got to have broad and expansive responsibilities in a complex environment, and especially in the 17-DA community [of network communications], I don't think we sufficiently provide targeted training for that kind of environment.”

He recommended that for airmen around midcareer, as a senior captain going into the rank of major will want to have various certifications “that helps you as you move forward to deal with that kind of transformation architecture investment types of jobs. We bloom where we are planted in our current jobs, but in terms of getting ready, I think there's a gap there.”

Col. Robert Kelly, USAF, noted that the A-6 role also requires a robust set of experiences. “We have to give you a lot of broad exposure to a lot of different experiences and capabilities because no matter which A-6 you're going to become—and they are not all the same—there's a broad aperture of things we need you to understand,” Col. Kelly said.

He also added that there was no distinct path to becoming an A-6. “You've heard all of us as we talked about our history and our career. Not a single one of us took the same path,” Col. Kelly noted. “Everybody always asks, ‘how do I go from A to B,’ and it’s not a straight line.” 

The Air Force must also provide specific education in the emerging technologies of the day.

“I think we've done a disservice in the career field by not really giving a targeted training in capabilities,” Col. Kelly said. “We're now working in these cloud environments and with zero-trust, software-defined technologies and advanced networking capabilities, but I don't think we build up our 17-D career fields well enough to advance or harness those capabilities. We’ve kind of done a lot of cookie cutter approaches, where we try to oversimplify things, but we need people to put that deeper thought into those areas, and we need to take a next level of development approach to fill in those gaps.”

Those kind of higher-level experiences will round out the airmen’s talents and they will be able to see where they naturally fit along their career, Col. Kelly added.

Another issue, Col. Blackwell and Col. Angerman said, is that the career field is heavily weighted with constant fast-moving technological advances.

“I think it is a challenge,” Col. Angerman explained. “We are in a technical environment, where we do lots of innovation and there are always things coming out of industry. And I think preparing a vision in a nonstatic environment, where we promulgate that vision and give time for fusion and strategic planning and investment is a challenge for our community. We struggle with that.”

For Col. Alfredo Corbett, USAF, soon to be the A-6 for Air Force Special Command, the service should be able to tackle the technology onslaught that 17-D’s face. “Planning is key,” said Col. Corbett. “In some sense, we kind of know what that technology is that is coming. We also know what that technology is that we need. So, in the planning stages, we should already have a plan to put some type of training process or program in place. And then once we push that equipment forward, we have to start figuring out how to train officers. It is all about planning.”

Part of the problem, Col. Kelly pointed out, is that cybersecurity, which is an encompassing part of everything, is not exactly categorized in certain job roles. “I think part of the problem is the identity crisis of, ‘what is cyber,’ and ‘what is IT [information technology],’ and ‘what exactly does a 17-D do,’” he stated. “I think we have done pretty well on the 17-S [cyber operations], and I think we have probably done well on the 17-DBs, expeditionary communications, but it is that 17-Delta Alpha track [for network communications] that we've kind of neglected.”

Col. Blackwell added that cyber is complex, because there is no definitive finish line or completion. “For my cyber officers out there who say, ‘Col. Blackwell, what is the end state?’ There is no end state. There may be trigger points along the way or things that we are driving toward, like zero-trust architecture or cloud computing and the ability to secure it, or the ability to get data to the tactical edge. And so, where are my 17-Deltas who understand data analytics? I think it is on us to hold institutions all along the way accountable for teaching our 17-Deltas those skills along the way,”