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Weaving an Airborne Web

The U.S. Air Force is clearing the air for advanced networking as it takes its next step into cyberspace exploitation. A unified effort aims to improve battlespace information sharing along with active cyberoperations, both offensive and defensive.
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine


A U.S. Air Force F-16 banks over Afghanistan during a recent operation. The Air Force is shifting focus to take a broad servicewide approach to networking and information operations.

Joint operations define U.S. Air Force networking.

The U.S. Air Force is clearing the air for advanced networking as it takes its next step into cyberspace exploitation. A unified effort aims to improve battlespace information sharing along with active cyberoperations, both offensive and defensive. This effort represents a cultural change both for information operators and for other airmen who are relying on cyberspace to an increasing degree.

The Air Force’s internal network evolved virtually independently as a function of its major commands. So, the service now is attempting to transform the heterogeneous network into a homogenous one. This parallels some business best practices in which a large corporation would consolidate a network to make it more manageable and efficient.

The service’s efforts go beyond traditional airspace networking activities. The entire cyberspace realm is the focus of Air Force information improvement efforts, and issues range from joint interoperability to cyberspace security. And, all these improvements and advances must be implemented without missing an operational beat.

“In a force that is as technically advanced as our U.S. Air Force, we have to pay attention to the glue that makes us technically advanced—and that glue is the cyberspace domain,” declares Lt. Gen. William T. Lord, USAF, chief information officer (CIO) and chief, warfighting integration for the Air Force.

“If you’re flying a Predator mission from someplace in the United States that is 12,000 miles away, and you’re controlling that sensor, the glue that ties that all together is the cyberdomain—and we have to pay attention to that glue,” Gen. Lord explains. “What we considered at one time to be a ubiquitous service, uninterrupted by anything other than a mistake, now is a place for an asymmetric attack.

“So, we put our money where our mouth was and said, ‘We need to pay attention to this domain as we do to the other operational domains,’” he relates.

Funding remains a challenge, Gen. Lord acknowledges, because it enables the service to perform good work. However, the Air Force is moving ahead with efforts to fulfill the Office of the Secretary of Defense mandate for information technology effectiveness and efficiency. Other priorities include improving senior leader communications aboard high-end platforms. The general likens this effort to those underway in the other services.

At the core of Air Force information system modernization is a broad program to change the shape of information and knowledge exploitation throughout the service. Known as CyberVision 2020, the effort aims at a major cultural shift both enabled by, and exploiting, new information systems.

CyberVision 2020 takes an approach that is more user-friendly than system-oriented, the general notes. “It starts at the mission end and backs into the tools that are required to support and make a mission operational—as opposed to, ‘We know how to build a network and we hope you guys can use it,’” he says.

“Historically, we have been about information assurance,” Gen. Lord posits. “We need to change that thought process to be about mission assurance.”

Gen. Lord notes that the career force is beginning to change from traditional communications and electronics, air battle manager, developmental engineer and intelligence officer tracks to a new type of function. CyberVision 2020 is designed to introduce airmen across those specialties to a different approach to cyberspace.

This effort will require skills on which the Air Force traditionally has not placed as much attention, the general adds. These skills include CIO functions and cybergovernance, along with interoperability becoming war-fighting integration. Gen. Lord relates that the services build weapons systems independently, only to attempt to lash them together at the tip of the spear. “We need to begin to build that stuff into systems at the beginning. To do that, you need to have a core of cyber people who understand war-fighting integration, who understand the governance process, who understand the information management of databases, and then who understand how to operate all that.

“That is the career field we want to build in CyberVision 2020,” he declares. “We have them today, but we need to homogenize them for combat effectiveness and for the efficiencies that we have to provide.”

The Air Force has compiled an activities list to facilitate the needed changes in cyberspace operations, information management, interoperability and governance in the traditional communications and information career field. These will transition into warfighting governance, cyberoperations, knowledge operations and cyberoperational support.

The general emphasizes that CyberVision 2020 is more a culture change than a technology shift. The Air Force’s information technology community is transitioning from being a data provider to being a knowledge provider. Instead of ensuring merely that the network is working, experts need to ensure that the applications on the network are working, he says. This also represents a shift away from securing the network toward securing the data that is stored on the network. It involves establishing, maintaining and defending a domain as well as operating in that domain—including operating amid enemy activities.

Gen. Lord compares it to the Air Force’s traditional approach to air superiority. “We don’t provide air superiority across the globe simultaneously. We provide air superiority over the area in which we are in conflict. So, for cyberspace operations, we must be able to target and think about the missions that are ongoing in a particular area, and change our operations to support that area—as opposed to defend the entire globe,” he explains.

He continues the analogy by noting that a base has a fence for perimeter defense, while its buildings have doors with locks and, in some cases, alarms or even armed guards. This layered security is based on mission priorities, so the cyberspace mission also will focus on priorities as well as the information, tools, tactics, techniques and procedures that enable mission success. “We have much of that today, but I think it is not as well-integrated as it could be,” the general adds.


An F-35 fighter flies over Florida as it heads to Eglin Air Force Base. The new fighter will double as an airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor platform, and it promises to introduce new waves of data into the Air Force network.

At the heart of this cultural change is training. Gen. Lord relates that, along with traditional items such as nomenclature and badges, the Air Force is changing the curriculum of what it teaches its officers and noncommissioned officers. Civilian government officers that are inside the cyber realm also are included in this new training.

He continues that a new cyberoperations officer undergoes a basic training of 29 weeks. That compares with traditional communications and information officer training that recently lasted only about six weeks. This broader training includes the onset of cloud computing, virtualizing applications, the delivery of both the network and its content.

“All of the verbs—establish, maintain, operate, defend and attack—are taught for the cyberdomain,” the general states.

This effort extends into noncommunicators in the Air Force. Career tracks such as intelligence, developmental engineering, electronic warfare, air battle management, and space and missile activities have synergies with the communications and information community, Gen. Lord adds.

The Air Force will be planning and executing kinetic and nonkinetic cyber missions for combatant commanders, the general continues. The service is building cyber munitions packages and will test them on new cyber ranges. Combined air operations centers will include cyberspace weapons systems teams to synchronize and deliver combat effects.

The service’s top networking needs are speed, security, homogeneity and availability, the general offers. The goal is to enable the required applications to run at the rates needed by customers. Data must be able to travel from one side of the world to the other without needing to pass through dozens of different iterations of firewall control settings, he emphasizes.

The Air Force is facing an influx of data flowing through its network as it deploys its advanced platforms. In addition to traditional information collection assets, future aircraft such as the F-35 will be virtual sensor platforms flying enhanced sensor suites that will generate huge amounts of valuable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data. Gen. Lord agrees that the Air Force must be ready to incorporate that large amount of data, but he adds that it is “not ready enough.”

If the airborne logistics information system were fully utilized, it could pump more than 20 gigabits of data per second, he observes. Even existing base networks cannot move that much data; yet, the Air Force must be able to access the intelligence and surveillance data from its newest aircraft.

Some data might be offloaded from the aircraft while it is airborne in uncontested airspace, Gen. Lord suggests. This would be easier when the aircraft does not need to break its operational stealth. Otherwise, the onboard data would be offloaded when the aircraft lands.

The general reports that the Air Force has begun resizing its infrastructure to ensure that it is ready for the F-35 deployment. The former Combat Information Transport System program has been broken up into two subprograms that are examining router switches and hubs, infrastructure, copper-to-fiber-optic conversion and dense wave multiplexing, to name a few.

The Air Force also is working with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) for long-haul communications support. DISA provides the necessary pipes through commercial networks or military satellites. This includes bringing new bandwidth requirements to the attention of DISA adjudicators, Gen. Lord notes. 

Maintaining information dominance in the coming decade will entail several activities and technologies. Foremost among these is the ability to manage and integrate airborne aerial layer networks. This is a joint effort, the general points out.

“We have what I call ‘a dog’s breakfast’ of networks,” he says. With these networks come different waveforms, most of which were developed independently by platform. Now, the Air Force is trying to integrate them in the air so that, for example, a Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JointSTARS) can benefit from the increasing amount of nontraditional ISR while also interoperating with different aircraft flying in diverse environments. These aircraft can include Army helicopters, Navy or Marine attack aircraft and Air Force air superiority fighters, and they might be in a denied environment. Regardless, the airborne aerial layer networks must be reconciled so that joint air operations can take full advantage of new capabilities coming into play.

This homogenization will require the harmonization of land, sea, air, space and cyber assets across all domains for combat effectiveness, he declares. Recent Air Force/Navy warfighter talks discussed the homogenization efforts both sides are pursuing and how those efforts are proceeding in various programs.

Part of this effort encompasses the possibility of denial of service. The Air Force is looking at how to deal with the loss of precision navigation and timing information, particularly that supplied by Global Positioning System  satellites. Gen. Lord offers that there may be a way to pick up that information at the aerial layer network so that precision-guided munitions continue to work.

Another key goal is to secure light mobile computing devices. Whether these are iPads, iPhones, Androids, Slates or others, they will be equipping the force to a large degree. The Air Force must be able to provide ubiquitous services that appear the same as those used on the displays of senior leader airborne platforms, the general declares. “We’re great at doing ailerons, engines and wing flaps, but we must pay as much attention to the back-end missions of those airplanes—where senior leaders expect wireless telephony and secure video teleconference off of wide-body jets,” he states.

And, as with the rest of the defense community, cloud computing is in play with the Air Force. While advocating the move toward it, Gen. Lord has his own views about the advantages and drawbacks of cloud computing. “I sleep with one eye open on cloud computing,” he allows. “I want to make sure that what we do is mission-enhancing, not just consolidation of computing centers or of servers.”

The Air Force underwent server consolidation, he notes, and that did allow the service to reap some benefits in efficiency. But he describes cloud computing as a next step, not just an improvement on the same process. “Just taking our applications and our computing power and putting them all in one building is not cloud computing,” he states.

“There is the potential for great efficiency, for great effectiveness, if you can expose data within the cloud,” he offers. “There also will be public cloud pieces, private cloud pieces and hybrids.”

The general also is keeping an eye on how the Air Force migrates from its current data infrastructure to a cloud environment. The issues are both physical and technical, he says, and those are compounded by a training aspect. “As I consolidate applications and services in one place, where is the brainpower that can be the tier 1, tier 2, tier 3 help desk to help a user solve an application problem?” he asks. “It’s not just putting a bunch of servers in one place.”

Gen. Lord emphasizes that cloud computing offers great potential for the Air Force, and the service has had some successful pilot programs. It especially enhances continuity of operations if its assets are distributed. This again argues against physical consolidation—“you haven’t put your eggs in one spot,” the general says about the optimal cloud computing configuration.

Cloud computing would help the Air Force provide enhanced reach-back capabilities for its deployed forces in the field seeking data, the general continues. And, while the Air Force will continue to extend its data access down to the tip of the spear, it does have gaps in training. Gen. Lord offers that the Air Force does not train “as well as we ought to” when it comes to training in the United States as it fights overseas.

He explains that each service brings its own set of operating devices and parameters, which then must be tied together at the forward edge of the battlefield. One initiative underway from the U.S. Central Command J-6 is to normalize these sets inside the United States before they reach the theater. It would help the Air Force, as well as the other services, if the differences between services could be normalized, he offers.

The general continues that the Joint Communications Support Element in Tampa, Florida, can provide that homogenized product for a joint task force commander. “We need to back that up so that our tactical equipment can clearly support Air Force missions as well as plug into the other services,” he says.