The Air Force Isn’t Doing Information Technology Right
I retired from active-duty service in the U.S. Air Force two years ago, capping a 28-year career as a communications officer and, later, a cyberspace operations officer. My final assignment was as deputy director of NATO’s Cyberspace Operations Centre in Belgium, which I wrote about right here in War on the Rocks. I often find myself reflecting on that experience lately, in a kind of reverse déjà vu. At the time, I was trying to help NATO “do cyber” right and thought that the alliance could learn a lot from my service’s approach to cyberspace operations. Now that I’m back in the Air Force, albeit out of uniform, I’m concerned that in its haste to become the global leader in cyberspace operations, the Department of the Air Force has severely degraded its ability to provide serviceable information technology (IT) capabilities for airmen and guardians. This is where NATO had, in my opinion, placed too much emphasis, thereby putting its own fledgling cyberspace operational future at risk. Life can be weird.
It’s easy to confuse cyberspace operations — in the military sense — with IT. Cyberspace operations wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the cyber “space” created by IT. Think of it this way: Cyber warriors operate in cyberspace, whereas IT professionals concern themselves with the provision and operation of the elements of cyberspace — networks connected by wired and wireless transport, and all the devices within and at the ends of them. And while there’s some similarity and crossover in the skillsets needed to do both, they are fundamentally different. IT professionals create and manage capabilities. Cyber warriors defend them in manners similar to how the rest of the U.S. military defends America and its allies in the physical world. To remain competitive with global adversaries, the United States needs to be good — no, the best — at both. It can’t be until it recognizes them as different and distinct functions, and prepares itself accordingly by separating them and giving each the attention they deserve — and by attention, I do mean funding and resourcing. As it is, the Air Force is treating cyberspace operations and IT like conjoined twins, but only nurturing the former while the latter slowly starves. That could produce tragic results.
Before I explain why, I need to confess: I’m part of the problem. When I was in uniform, I lent my voice to others who believed that all of this cyber stuff was special, to the detriment of old-school communications. I knew it was essential to get the operational aspects of cyber right, and I felt it was asking too much of airmen to simultaneously be cyber warriors and IT service provision experts. I was (and still am) in favor of commercializing as many of the IT service tasks as possible. And I did not recognize that the decisions that my functional community made then would fracture it in the future, leading the Air Force to where it is now — unable to make wise, coordinated investments regarding the IT spend, because it has no idea what the IT spend is. This is partially due to de-centralized IT spending within various mission system programs, and, in particular, because the primary IT portfolios remain intertwined with its burgeoning cyberspace operations investments. Furthermore, by turning each and every uniformed IT professional communicator into a cyber warrior, the Air Force communications and information career field has collectively turned its back on its IT service provision. And soon, there’ll be virtually nobody to provide that essential support either in garrison or deployed in combat zones.
I write this to shame nobody, but rather to call attention to what I think we’ve collectively overlooked.
Cyber Operations Aren’t IT
I want to be clear about this: the United States absolutely must be able to overmatch all other state and non-state actors in cyberspace. I feel strongly about this. The Air Force felt so strongly about this that it actually changed its mission statement in November of 2005 to “… fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace.” This changed again in April of 2021 in the wake of the birth of the U.S. Space Force and the acknowledgement that all services contribute to joint operations in cyberspace, leading the Air Force to return its core competency to “Fly, fight, and win … Airpower anytime, anywhere.”
In 2018, the Air Force made Air Combat Command the lead command with responsibility for cyber missions, which were previously within the purview of Air Force Space Command, a move that on the surface made all the sense in the world. It allowed the latter to concentrate on space superiority and helped to set the stage for the eventual creation of the U.S. Space Force. The move included the 16th Air Force (also known as AFCYBER) organization, encompassing all of the operational cyberspace wings and squadrons created to date. In Air Combat Command, the cyberspace operations community now finds itself in the hands of a major command that is all about operations. And make no mistake, cyberspace operations are operations. That’s what I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince some NATO leaders of. Cyberspace as a domain of military operations is not about computers and code — it’s about operations. When it’s necessary to fight within the cyber domain you use the same lexicon, tenets, and principles and many of the same tactics, techniques, and procedures that you use to fight in the physical domains. You use the domain to achieve effects, which in turn may help to achieve other effects in other domains that lead to victory. Cyber operators need to speak and write like air, land, sea, and — now — space operators. Operators plan and conduct operations. When you’re looking for the right home for cyberspace operations in the Air Force, go where the operators are. Hello, Air Combat Command. If you don’t think this decision was made with operations in mind, read what Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said at the time: “This move will drive faster decisions as we fight by realigning the cyber operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions under the same command.”
What’s the problem with that? A lot more than the responsibility for cyberspace operations went with it. Before Air Force Space Command became lead command for cyber in 2009, IT was managed like all other support activities. The functional lead, in this case the top communications and information officer on the secretary of the Air Force’s staff, provided governance and funds to the major commands, who then organized, trained, and equipped their installation communications squadrons. Requirements flowed back up the chain from the squadrons, and so forth. When it recognized cyberspace as a warfighting domain, the Air Force made the logical decision to centralize the network (which proved more challenging than it appeared) and categorize it as a weapons system, which put it in a better position to compete for funding. “Operationalizing” the Air Force network also led to operationalizing the forces that had been supporting it from the beginning: the communications and information career field. Overnight and with no real training save a hastily assembled and seriously insufficient online transition course, but with the recognition that some among its ranks had worked in operational environments communications, officers became cyberspace operations officers. We even got something many of us never thought we’d ever get: the opportunity to wear wings on our uniforms. The enlisted career field is following suit this fall, converting 11 specialty codes starting with “3D” (communications support) to a single “1D7” code (cyberspace operations) with the intent to get away from, as the manager of the cyberspace support career field put it, “providing a service like email and infrastructure and those types of things, to operationalizing to provide mission assurance to weapons platforms.” Accordingly, the tech schools that used to teach new airmen how to be communicators are now teaching offensive and defensive cyber operations.
This represents a major culture shift in the Air Force, and I bore witness to it with my own eyes. The communications officers who I supervised were scrambling to become real cyberspace operators: coordinating effects, running offensive operations, and orchestrating defensive operations. Suddenly it was hip to be square, though in reality, not much changed, initially, for most of us. We kept dial tones and 1s and 0s flowing through copper, fiber, and the spectrum. It’s changing now.
In 2017, the Air Force announced the Cyber Squadron Initiative, which converts a substantial amount of the manpower found within traditional communications squadrons into cyberspace squadrons within operations groups, with the mission to defend their most critical mission systems. A handful of positions from the old communications squadrons — whatever is left after building the cyber squadron — will be used to establish IT flights, which will typically be comprised of a few dozen people and reside within the mission support groups. But these flights will not have enough staff to support all of the common-core IT requirements for all users at the base, a role previously performed by the communications squadrons. So the Air Force is turning to contractors, under an initiative known as Enterprise IT as a Service.
The Air Force tested this IT outsourcing approach at eight installations in order to kick the tires on the concept via an Other Transactional Authority — a mechanism that adds speed to the acquisition process, typically for prototypes acquired outside the notoriously slow Federal Acquisition Regulations. Assuming Enterprise IT as a Service is here to stay, one would also have to assume that the yokes of lumbering, burdensome contracts are somewhere on the near horizon and will bog down any agility gained. It’s a painful and frustrating reality that impacts many trying to influence positive change.
Though there’s clearly some good in what the Enterprise IT as a Service vendors can deliver (sometimes realized by simple changes like the introduction of solid-state laptops), it doesn’t do all that a communications squadron does, including the important duty to respond to what the chain of command directs without the need to determine whether the task is in the scope of the contract. Furthermore, to satisfy the desire to get away from bureaucratic government regulations standing in the way of rapid progress, the vendors are allowed to follow commercial best practices, and it’s unclear if those consistently comply with federal and Department of Defense regulatory guidance.
There’s no way to fully measure the impact of this until it is too late: the military manpower will be gone and there will be no recourse except to live with the results or give more money to the vendors — money that the Air Force already knows it doesn’t have and won’t get.
This is exacerbated by the plan to establish the Space Force as an operations-only Service, meaning that it will derive nearly all of its support from the Air Force. Air Force Material Command is designated as the servicing command for the Space Force. While it’s comparatively easy to identify how to provide those services within the other mission-support functions, it’s proving to be a challenge to do that for IT, specifically due to the fractured and scattered remains of the communications and information functional community.
IT Is Support and Operations Depend on IT
In the Air Force, there are multiple communities — operations, maintenance, support, medical, acquisition, etc. — and they’re all essential. When communications officers and enlisted personnel became cyber operators, they joined the operational community and left mission support.
The Air Force mission support community exists to make sure that operators can operate, particularly at base level, where the rubber meets the runway. It includes civil engineers, who make sure that flight lines, facilities, and utilities are there for air operations. It includes security forces, services personnel, and contracting professionals. And, for the most part, when commanders need support, they know where to find it. The civil engineer functional community is anchored by the Air Force Civil Engineering Center. Security forces have the Air Force Security Forces Center. Force support personnel have the Air Force Services Center. Contracting officers can call the Air Force Installation Contracting Center. All these entities reside within the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, which stood up in 2014 as the one-stop support shop for base commanders. The center has liaison offices in every major command to represent their priorities for action. It mirrors what you’d find in nearly every mission-support group at every base: the civil engineering squadron, the security forces squadron, the force support squadron, the contracting squadron, and the communications squadron.
Wait… something’s missing. If the civil engineering squadron calls the Civil Engineering Center for support, who does the communications squadron call when it needs help? The answer is: it depends.
Let’s say a base is having trouble with its IT backbone. If it needs a fiber optic cable replaced, or a new one trenched, it could submit a requirement to the Engineering and Installation Work Plan, managed by a small office in the civil engineering center. It could wait until the Base Information Transport Infrastructure program office arrives to perform a tech refresh. If the trouble is due to lack of sustainment and it needs a maintenance contract for the infrastructure, it could submit a requirement to the installation support directorate in the Installation and Mission Support Center and hope that the center has the funds to help pay for it. Or it could wait for the heralded panacea for all the Air Force’s IT woes to arrive at its base: Enterprise IT as a Service. That’s what some believe… or have been led to believe.
The belief is misplaced. In order to pay for Enterprise IT as a Service and other enterprise-level efforts, the Air Force has overturned all the sofa cushions and rounded up all the dimes and nickels that used to go to the major commands to fund their base-level IT requirements. It’s now largely up to major command and installation commanders to tap discretionary funds to pay for those requirements if one of the aforementioned avenues does not come through with the money. And as the blue-suit communications and information manpower pipeline from Air Force schoolhouses dries up at the same time that previous generations transition to industry or retire, there will be few — eventually no — airmen left to take care of a neglected and rapidly degrading infrastructure on the bases. It’s a burning platform from which the Air Force will find it increasingly difficult to effectively operate.
To make matters worse, as this outsourcing effort moves to production, the strapped-for-cash program office has no choice but to reduce the baseline to a handful of enterprise services, primarily tier one help desk support, but (and it’s a big but) all the devices that were distributed to the test bases via an enterprise lease will be gathered up, and the bill to replace them will handed to the major commands and the bases. Enterprise IT as a Service will not pay for on-site labor services, and has informed the major commands that they will need to program for the funds themselves to pay for them, a process that takes years to produce results that are anything but guaranteed. There should be low expectations that the commands will be able to unearth money that the Air Staff could not produce itself.
The resultant capability gap created by this attempt to commercialize IT service provision is not only cavernous — in some places it’s impossible to see the opposite ledge. Outsourcing enterprise IT services is, maybe was, a great idea — the right idea — but the Air Force can’t afford what it needs. As such, it’s a promise, so far, not kept.
There’s another concern, and it’s perhaps the most consequential because it’s directly related to the military’s fundamental purpose: to win wars. For decades, the warfighting commands relied upon tech-schooled airmen (as well as soldiers, sailors, and marines) who honed their skills at their home bases before deploying to fulfill communications requirements at the proverbial tip of the spear. While contracted services have worked well in some deployed locations where there was time to build up infrastructure (think enduring but still “temporary” installations in the Middle East), it’s difficult to understand how the Air Force would be able to provide those capabilities exclusively in austere forward combat zones in the future (think what it would likely need in the Pacific). There’s also no way to keep contractors from refusing to work in combat. That requires an oath that only uniformed members take. One has to wonder if Air Force expeditionary “combat comm” units will be able to fulfill the need.
America’s adversaries clearly are not waiting for it to get cyber-ready. That means that we can expect Air Force communications squadrons to move from support roles to operational cyber squadron roles sooner rather than later — in fact, the move is already underway. Enterprise IT as a Service can’t keep pace, and even if it could, there aren’t viable support options to make up for what it won’t deliver.
What Can the Air Force Do About IT?
The Air Force ought to recognize that despite its best intentions it has gutted its communications support structure, and in doing so, accepted levels of risk that it shouldn’t have. A desire to pursue 21st-century IT solutions has not come with the funds to achieve it, so it’s imperative that the Air Force makes sure that whatever it does have remains viable until it can be modernized. There also needs to be much more synchronicity between those who are working on modernization and those who are sustaining what already exists to eliminate waste and balance capability. A critical first step would be separating IT service provision and lifecycle management from cyberspace operations, because they are fundamentally different. In other words, separate the conjoined twins so they can each function and flourish on their own, unburdened by the other.
It starts at the top, and the Air Force took a step in the right direction by combining the former intelligence and communications and information deputy chiefs of staff into one: the HAF A2/6, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and cyber effects operations. In a complementary fashion, the Air Force elevated the office for the department’s chief information officer — SAF/CN — from a deputy to a full-fledged chief information officer. There’s still too much overlap, however, especially with Air Combat Command retaining the role of lead command for cyber, which includes the portfolios for what even the most casual observer would recognize as IT support: the connect portfolio, compute and store portfolio, end user devices portfolio, enterprise services portfolio, and protect portfolio.
The Air Force also needs to align itself in a way that keeps the end user/customer in mind. It has done so for cyberspace operations. The 16th Air Force is the Air Force component to U.S. Cyber Command, and as such aligns its forces in Air Combat Command and presents them to U.S. Cyber Command for operations. That makes sense.
There is very little alignment on the IT service provision side of the house. Air Combat Command controls the overwhelming majority of funds for all Air Force IT. It directs and controls the activities of the Cyberspace Capabilities Center, which calls itself “the United States Air Force’s only organization for Air Force network integration, cyber simulation, and network standards, architecture and engineering services.” Though there’s no “comm” in the title, the description sure sounds like “comm,” but in reality it’s difficult to find anybody in the Cyberspace Capabilities Center who would refer to themselves as “comm.” Nobody wants to be considered old-school, so the old-school stuff simply gets older. As a result, base commanders regularly make the tough decision to fund non-standard, one-off IT requirements on their own. These include conveniences like commercial wireless capabilities, and life-saving capabilities like emergency notifications systems and sirens. Commanders do this while accepting risk elsewhere, because they can’t wait for (and don’t know who to call in order to obtain) higher headquarters support for their IT requirements that aren’t related to cyber operations.
Here’s one strategy that would provide alignment: Separate the IT portfolio from the cyberspace operations community by moving the Cyberspace Capabilities Center to the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. This is a relatively simple organizational change. It’s likely Air Combat Command would resist such a move because it presently holds the purse strings for the IT portfolio, and with money comes power. But the Air Force should take a hard look at this relationship. The Cyberspace Capabilities Center performs primarily IT support functions, not operational cyber. The public affairs release that announced its creation declared, “simply put, the center will provide future opportunities to enhance how the Air Force provides Enterprise IT capabilities and will better support and develop Airmen working in this mission set.” Also, it’s new only in name. It has actually been around longer than the Air Force, starting as the Army Air Communications Service in 1938. In all its iterations since then, it’s been all about provisioning and delivering IT capabilities and services.
Putting the Cyberspace Capabilities Center with the other support functions will also offer synergies — particularly alignment with the civil engineers who manage projects that almost always come with an IT tail, with the contracting centers that manage acquisition of those projects for the installations, and the program management offices that manage enterprise-level IT. It just makes sense.
As an example of how the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center model works to target efficiencies, it recently completed a study that recommended, and received approval for, the centralization of Air Force Land Mobile Radio oversight and management within one of its directorates. This six-person office is in the process of standing up now, and is conservatively projected to save $331 million dollars of the $1 billion currently spent every 10 years on radios. The center is recommending a similar study to centralize oversight and management of the installation IT infrastructure, and believes that it can achieve similar, if not better, efficiencies. It shouldn’t take multiple years-long studies to realize these kinds of savings, which could be re-invested to fill the gaps for capabilities that the Air Force can’t afford in its current organizational construct. It can’t. It needs to, in the words of the current Air Force chief of staff, “accelerate change or lose.”
Of course there are other options, with the obvious alternative being keeping the lead command construct in place and moving all of the other parts and pieces of the IT service provision puzzle to Air Combat Command, to include those that can be found within the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center today. The reason that I think that’s the wrong approach is because there’s an inherent conflict of interest in keeping the dollars allocated for support in the same hands that are responsible for operations. I’m not suggesting anything nefarious there, simply pointing out that emergent operational requirements nearly always take precedence over long-term, sustainable, critical support. The Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center is laser-focused on providing that support directly for the airmen and guardians who carry out the mission of the Air Force and Space Force at their foundational level: the bases. All of it relies upon reliable, sustainable, connected IT.
Given the ineffective model that the Air Force has now, one that makes the distinction between operations and support indistinguishable, it’s time to accelerate change. Now. Father Time is doing a number on the IT infrastructure at the base level, there isn’t enough money or appetite at the enterprise level to do what’s needed to fix it, and America’s adversaries are likely very happy about that.
It’s time to do something about IT.
Don Lewis retired from active duty in 2019 in the rank of colonel, having held a variety of operational, staff, and command positions at Air Force squadron, wing, and major command levels, and Department of Defense agency and unified combatant command levels. He continues his service to the U.S. Air Force today as a government civilian.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force. The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the United States Department of Defense of the linked websites, or the information, products or services contained therein. The Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial, security, or other control over the information you may find at these locations.
Photo by 1st Lt. Steven Lewis