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John Foley
John Foley
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Air Force CIO Priorities: Networking At Mach 6

Lt. Gen. William Lord outlines an ambitious plan to bolster the Air Force's cybersecurity posture, drive IT efficiencies, deploy new tech tools, and establish aerial networks at supersonic speeds.

Lt. Gen. William Lord, the Air Force’s CIO, isn’t satisfied with the steps taken thus far to protect the military branch’s computer systems and networks. Lord worries that intruders will get past the Air Force’s network perimeter defenses -- or already have -- and he’s aggressively trying to prevent it.

Lord compares network firewalls to the fences that surround military bases. They keep out “the honest folks and the dogs,” he says, but not your most dangerous enemies. On base, the military employs roving patrols inside the fence line as an added precaution. He wants to do the same thing within the Air Force’s IT environment, but with technology in lieu of armed guards.

The critically important job of taking the Air Force’s cybersecurity operations to that next level -- from “information assurance” to "situational awareness” -- is high on Lord’s priority list. “The enemy we don’t know within the network is the number one thing that keeps me awake,” he says.

It’s been 16 months since Lord was named the Air Force’s CIO and chief of warfighting integration. Prior to that, he was commander of Air Force Cyber Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, which helps explain his laser focus on cybersecurity. On Nov. 2, in a roundtable briefing at the Pentagon, Lord provided an overview on that and his other top priorities. Here's my recap of the big job he faces.

Strengthen cybersecurity. During the past year, the Air Force has changed the job classification of 30,000 personnel to that of Cyberspace operators and officers, a reflection of new, more stringent skills requirements and training. Lord himself wears the new Cyberspace badge on his uniform. Just last week, the Air Force introduced “cyberspace defense operator” as a career field.

As a next step, Lord is looking to introduce new technologies -- packet inspection, network mapping, sensors, and more -- as part of a “layered defense” strategy. That will require both effective implementation and an “operational mindset” focused on cybersecurity, but it will take time, he says.

Drive IT efficiency. Lord wants to squeeze inefficiencies from the Air Force’s IT operations, not surprising given Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ goal of saving $100 billion over five years. Data center consolidation, e-mail consolidation, and application consolidation are all on the table. For example, Lord figures the Air Force can save $600 million to $800 million by cutting 9,000 apps from its portfolio of 19,000. And the Air Force stands to save tens of millions of dollars by migrating some of its enterprise apps to DISA’s cloud computing environment.

Other possibilities include sharing IT services -- e-mail, for example -- with other branches of the military. Lord says he is even open to the idea of using commercial cloud services such as those offered by Google and Microsoft.

Deploy new communications tools. Like other government employees, Air Force leaders are sometimes frustrated that the tech tools they get at work don’t measure up to what’s widely available in the private sector. (Federal CIO Vivek Kundra calls it the “tech gap” in government.) “We have customers who rightfully demand that they have the same capabilities in our offices, in their vehicles, and when they’re airborne,” Lord says.

The Air Force is looking to close the gap by offering a range of new tools and capabilities: Windows 7, Macs, in-flight wireless service, 4G wireless, and support for iPhones and Android devices. “I want the rich device experience to be in the hands of our forward-deployed folks,” Lord says.

Reform IT acquisition. If the Air Force is to succeed at the above challenges (cybersecurity, IT efficiency, delivering new communications tools) it’s going to have to change the way it acquires IT products and services. The IT industry simply moves too fast, which means the Air Force finds itself running on outdated products and services. Too often, "we’re delivering yesterday’s technology tomorrow," says Lord.

The Air Force needs to lower the hurdles to testing new technology and to leap entire generations of platforms to get from the old to the new more quickly. “How do we leap 3G and go to 4G networks? That’s one of the things we’re looking at,” says Lord. The Air Force has a good working relationship with the IT industry, but “we need a better one,” he adds.

Establish mid-air networks. The Air Force is adept at establishing communications on the ground and in space; it’s the “aerial layer” in between where there’s the most room for improvement, Lord says. Examples of technologies in this area are the Joint Tactical Radio System and the Link 16 over-the-air data network. In a recent demo of JTRS, Lockheed Martin showed that streaming video could be transmitted from an Army helicopter to ground radios and displayed in a Humvee. Impressive but complicated, and it shows why Lord is turning his energies to this area.

Mid-air networking will only get more sophisticated. Lord talks of networking from an F-35 fighter traveling at the speed of sound, and collecting and transmitting ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) data from unmanned aircraft that bolt through the sky at Mach 6.

There's much more on the Air Force's IT agenda, including the rollout of Windows 7 to 600,000 PCs, and Lord’s interest in conducting an apps-dev competition along the lines of the Apps For Army contest. It’s an ambitious set of goals, and none of it will be easy. We will report regularly on how it’s going.

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