The Air Force is aiming to move many of its major technology functions to a single network by end of next year. At the same time though, the service is adding new technology stovepipes to its network every day.
The Air Force’s IT networks currently are getting more complicated, not less, said Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the new commander of the Air Force Electronic Systems Center, which is responsible for developing about 200 major information systems and command-and-control networks for the service. “Every day, I get any number of requests from folks who would like to add a new application to this network,” Davis said at the MILCOM conference in Baltimore Wednesday. “Most of the programs I deal with today have gone along the path of building their own complete infrastructure, their own complete hardware and software protocols, because they’re being held responsible for their own performance under their own program. So what you now have is a proliferating infrastructure that only gets more complicated. No two systems try to pool their resources and try to use the same resources. We see that happening across most of the programs within the Air Force right now.”
Davis, who was appointed to lead ESC in September, said the Air Force is being pressed by two competing forces: the need to be able to bring new technology on board at a rapid pace, and the need to understand the structure of an IT infrastructure that’s always increasing in complexity so that the Air Force can defend it.
While the goal is a seamless network covering air, space and land, Davis said the service is far from that objective right now. Instead, he said, the Air Force has “tens of hundreds of networks that have been tied together by brute force.”
For example, Davis said, since systems were allowed to grow up according to their own protocols, many of them can’t natively interoperate in tactical operations. So the Air Force had to design a system known as BACN, the Battlefield Airborne Control Node. Its sole purpose is to stay airborne aboard a modified business jet, exchange signals between various systems, translate them and allow Air Force and other military technology elements to talk to one another.
“It’s become such a highly prized, highly tasked asset that most of the combatant commanders won’t conduct operations if there’s not a BACN flying at the time to be able to integrate, for example, a special forces team in one area with an ingress of another set of fighters coming in to provide protection,” he said. “That in itself is a great example of success and failure at the same time. It’s success because we’ve finally figured out how to integrate some of these air, space and ground networks. But the fact that we had to do it through a very complex translation system tells you we’ve not been successful at integrating all these networks.”
Air Force leaders tasked Davis with coming up with an assessment of how to improve the way the service delivers IT capabilities. In a September memo welcoming him to the new job, David Van Buren, the Air Force’s acquisition executive, told Davis the Air Force’s electronic system acquisition efforts had been plagued by fragmented authorities, poor program execution, and struggles in delivering affordable and timely IT products. “The programs executed by ESC do not have the highest dollar value, but the employ the largest acquisition workforce and are certainly the most complex,” Van Buren wrote in a Sept. 15 memo co-signed by Donald Hoffman, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command. “To be frank, they also have the highest level of customer and stakeholder dissatisfaction.”
The memo told Davis to prepare recommendations to improve acquisition for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence and to be ready to present them to the Air Force’s top four leaders.
Davis said the Air Force is going to have to take a very different approach to the way it develops new major systems, and start moving to a culture of incremental releases of new capability.
“We’re going to have to be very brutal about what requirements we take on,” he said. “Not that we won’t do the requirements, but we’ll take on a very limited set at a time. Do a very short release, do a very small capability fielding, and go right on to the next one. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to get any progress on some of these systems. These humongous systems with millions of lines of code and hundreds of requirements will never be successful in this world again, and certainly will not be able to survive the acquisition process we live in today.”
But to do that kind of rapid-release development, Davis said the Air Force also needs some help from the Pentagon and Congress, in the form of stable and flexible funding streams.
“The cybersecurity threat changes weekly and daily,” he said. “We need a flexible funding line that allows you, within a certain level of constraint, the freedom to use that funding to field a specific part of the capability and move on to another specific part of the capability. Each capability is not going to be that well-defined to the people that gave us the money, but if we don’t have some flexibility to do that for both the offensive and defensive parts of cyber operations, we’ll be behind the threat and we’ll never get anything out there that’s going to be useful.”
Baseline standards needed
To get there, the Air Force needs to take control of its baseline network standards and start establishing centralized governance.
“For example, every program that comes along doesn’t get to bring their own infrastructure,” he said. “They have to figure out how to work with the network we have. We will provide the standards and protocols for that particular program of record to connect to the network. We have to pull back on the complexity and the number of pieces of hardware and software that everyone brings to that grand network with those 850,000 users. If we don’t get to that point, these systems are going to continue to fail. Everybody’s going to continue to wonder, why can’t I put a simple pay system on the Air Force network? Why can’t a put a simple logistics system that tracks parts on the Air Force network?”
Davis said there are plenty of challenges though. For one thing, it’s not clear which Air Force organizations have ownership of the network across the land, air and space domains.
IT leaders across the Air Force are trying to map that out right now, and the Air Force Space Command has been put in charge of setting up master plans for the Air Force’s core IT functions. That command also is in charge of migrating local IT enclaves at Air Force bases and major commands to new enterprise services such as email.