The right stuff: neutralising the cyber threat9 June 2012
As CIO of the US Air Force Lieutenant General William T Lord is charged with overseeing and updating IT infrastructure. In light of the need for personnel to be able to share information readily, while maintaining tight data security, the role carries a wide range of responsibilities and challenges, as he explains to Ross Davies.
Implementing a new IT infrastructure in a business, while still conducting daily operations, is very much like upgrading an aircraft's engine while still in flight," claims Lieutenant General William T Lord, the US Air Force's (USAF) CIO and chief of warfighting integration.
The Pentagon summons up several universal images: the world's most recognisable and closely-guarded office building; metonym for the US Department of Defense (DoD); and pinnacle of global military intelligence, to list just a few. However, Lord's apposite aeronautical analogy serves as a reminder that, like any business, it faces a range of everyday technological challenges that need to be surmounted in order to maintain a streamlined and efficient organisation.
The USAF, the world's largest air force, currently has over 330,000 active personnel on its books, as well as 150,000 civilian employees, posted both at home and overseas. In his role, Lord leads five directorates and two field operating agencies, consisting of more than 1,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel, which together support an aggregate portfolio valued at $17 billion.
The need for synergy
Unsurprisingly, Lord's undertaking is a complex and demanding one. He is required to manage, upgrade and modernise the USAF's IT infrastructure, while ensuring that new equipment not only performs effectively and efficiently - after all, having the right information at the right time lies at the heart of any successful military operation - but can also be merged with disparate legacy systems and software.
"I am involved in most of the traditional things that you would associate with the IT world," says Lord. "Also, chief of warfighting integration entails the integration of power across the core functions of the USAF. Basically, this means you can tie databases and independent platforms together, creating synergy in return."
In line with today's fast-moving technological advancements, Lord's position as adviser to the USAF's secretary, Michael Donley, has taken on greater urgency of late.
"It has become imperative," he says. "As well as providing him with weekly updates - which can be on anything from operational matters to how we are complying with the Federal Information Security Management Act - we also utilise a CIO council.
"This constitutes a team of acquisition guys, operators and implementers, who sit down on a regular basis to discuss big investment decisions concerning the modernisation of the air force."
Lord's central task is to maintain interoperability, not only within the USAF sphere, but across a wide spectrum of DoD services, including the army, navy and marines. This is no mean feat, as he explains.
"It really demands a commonality of solutions," he says. "It's about ringing a new homogenous model technology to a network that has grown up heterogeneously, bearing in mind, at one time, the USAF alone had 200 networks.
"In terms of migrating new data and security with our fellow servicemen and servicewomen at the DoD, we have figured out that there is not only a symbiotic relationship required between services, but there also needs to be synergy that comes from being able to exchange information that's been gathered by different platforms."
Neutralising the cyber threat
System modernisation also constitutes developing sufficient firewall protection against the threat of hacking - an obvious priority for an organisation housing some of the world's most sensitive and confidential data. The USAF has shored itself up against risks through partnering with OEMs such as Apple, Android, HP and Microsoft to develop sufficient safeguard technology infrastructures.
"Security is one of the biggest challenges in bringing new technology into the air force as it takes a long time to complete the analysis that ensures that we are less vulnerable to issues like hacking," says Lord. "Currently, we are in talks with Apple about the Apple IOS and some things that they could perhaps do to their operating systems in order to make them a little more secure."
Such measures are also facilitated by the USAF's Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Founded in 1997, its in-house information directorate has contributed significantly to reconciling traditional battlefield issues with innovative contemporary cyberspace functions.
"The AFRL has an entire branch devoted to the cyber realm, including a focus on information technology," he says. "Several billion dollars a year are spent on finding and figuring out how to transition those experiments into operations. I have a chief technology officer directly assigned to me, who also looks at commercial technology, which is not always exclusive to the DoD."
In light of its exponential rise, social media has emerged as an important function in leveraging greater interaction between the USAF and its DoD counterparts. Having introduced an online chat room for personnel some ten years ago aimed at encouraging the exchange of information and advice, Lord cites it as indispensable to combat operations.
"We now have 450,000 airmen using social networking capabilities," says Lord. "In this way, a serviceman that knows how to maintain a jet engine located at an airbase in Germany can exchange information with staff dealing with the same kind of equipment half way across the world. We have really seen a return on our investments in this area."
Through his involvement in the development of the USAF's careers website, which comprises a plethora of interactive videos and simulations depicting life in the service as well as chat facilities, Lord's remit also stretches into the burgeoning online recruitment process.
"I am involved in establishing how many individuals we bring into the USAF, whether they are civilians or already enlisted," he says. "One way in which we have helped recruiters is through the use of social networking. It's no longer a case of having to drive over to a recruiting station - instead potential candidates can go on the website, watch some videos and determine whether it is of interest. It is more attractive."
Does the parlous state of the US economy threaten to derail further innovations in the pipeline? After all, in light of the US Budget Control Act - imposed last year with the aim of reducing the federal deficit - the Pentagon has been forced to make a series of cuts across the board, including the USAF.
Not a bit of it, according to Lord. While not ideal, he believes that in being obliged to combine and pool common information resources as a result of budget restrictions, there is an ideal opportunity for the USAF to ramp up its in-house communications and bring about better unity with coalition forces, which represent a large part of its military operations.
"There was a time when our organisations grew independently, because we had enough money," he says. "However, this meant that there was a lot less crossover. A synergy has come from us needing to do a better job of sharing with each other. The same goes for our coalition partners. Today, I have members of the Canadian Army and Royal Air Force assigned to my staff. It has given an impetus to find commonality. As a result of that, we can become even more efficient, which is positive for everybody."