Following the SolarWinds intrusion, a growing symphony of cyberspace and intelligence agencies continue to earnestly scour their networks, carefully examining cascading effects associated with the world’s largest cyberattack. Unbeknownst to many, a similar and equally devastating SolarWinds-like problem quietly persists throughout the Air Force. For this analysis, the problem is not directly related to sanitizing critical software ecosystems, cloud computing environments or vast network technologies, but has everything to do with a large number of cyberspace personnel who lack adequate levels of training and certification to prosecute information warfare operations in a manner commensurate with national security imperatives.
Through a strategic guidance memorandum, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, challenged all airmen to “accelerate change or lose.” After the initial dictum, he subsequently released action orders, specifically oriented toward four areas: airmen, bureaucracy, competition and design implementation. Upon reading Gen. Brown’s guidance, one may inquisitively ask, “How do I apply these four lines of effort to my area of expertise?” Since the preponderance of victories, whether in the air, at sea or on land, heavily rely on promptly and securely transmitted data — oftentimes shared amongst joint and coalition partners — it is advantageous to use the action orders as a frame of reference and offer perspectives relative to the future of cyberspace training.
There is no question that America’s dedicated and courageous airmen serve as the lifeblood for the greatest Air Force in the world. Despite having legions of highly capable and technically inclined professionals, the locations and concentrations of cyberspace talent are not readily known. Once airmen (officer and enlisted) depart basic technical training programs, the Air Force — professional military education and on-the-job training notwithstanding — does not have a sanctioned process to record achievement of additional skills, training and personal education pursuits. To aid in accelerating change, the Air Force would benefit by innovating how it trains, tracks and manages the Air Force’s diverse cyberspace workforce portfolio.
Bureaucracy is at a historical low; as such, now is the time to capitalize on this era of overwhelming encouragement and strong advocacy from the Air Force’s most senior leaders. Over the last several years, innovative concepts generated by highly intelligent, unit-level airmen and government civilians ignited designs for many of today’s most prominent innovative units, whether oriented toward cutting-edge software developments, groundbreaking artificial intelligence initiatives, or merely solving very complex problem sets for the Air Force. To sustain momentum in building the digital Air Force that America requires, authorities need to continue removing bureaucratic barriers while inspiring airmen to remain resolute in developing innovative moon shots.
The complex world of cyber serves as the most competitive and contested war-fighting domain. Beyond initial training, rigorous cyberspace education becomes less formalized. The preponderance of further learning is mostly at the behest of one’s own personal and professional development desires. Every day airmen use an incalculable number of technologies and tools. With some exceptions (e.g., specialized offensive and defensive operations training), the majority of personnel possess limited or rudimentary training associated with operating sophisticated hardware and software platforms. A collection of government and commercially sponsored training modules and programs are available at no cost; as such, personal initiative is inextricably linked to the learning continuum. Achieving and maintaining credentialing commensurate with industry-sanctioned education standards may be costly; however, investing in and enforcing high-quality training provides cyberspace personnel with valuable skills needed to accelerate innovation and confidently compete with adversaries.
With the emergence of innovation units, now is the time to look beyond these centers of excellence, explore broader organizational designs and ultimately deliver capabilities at scale. How should the Air Force advance forward to accelerate change, especially as it pertains to advancing digital technologies and cyberspace operations education? Similar to inventorying airmen and their skills, there is value in assessing cyber-oriented functions that add value and those that do not. Examining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the cyberspace portfolio will improve agility, enable smart investments, and ultimately lead to creating and sustaining an organizational structure that permits the Air Force to quickly align skills with ever-changing technologies — all in the spirit of designing the future of cyberspace operations while building an adaptable digital workforce.
Key next steps
- Evaluate how the Air Force organizes, trains and equips personnel responsible for prosecuting information warfare activities.
- Identify certifications required and develop innovative pathways to broaden cyber training.
- Enforce credentialing structure commensurate with industry standards.
- Examine methods to track skills and talents while ensuring a balanced cyberspace force presentation.
- Codify and implement executable sustainment strategies (funding/personnel) for training programs, software development entities and innovation units.
For the Air Force to prevent a SolarWinds-like crisis from occurring in the realm of cyberspace education and training, it needs to examine methods to know where talent is located while optimally expediting how the Air Force trains, tracks, manages and maximizes cyberspace skills. Competing with highly-trained, extremely capable adversaries serves as a daunting scenario for cyberspace personnel, especially when a skills mismatch exists. Accelerating development of a formalized, yet sustainable and enforceable, career field-driven credentialing structure for cyber airmen will fortify the Air Force’s ability to succeed in the information warfare arena while winning the high-end fight.
Air Force Lt. Col. Steven Skipper is a national security affairs fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.