Air Force CIO plots comprehensive cyber strategy

USAF Lt. Gen. William Bender is planning a broad review of the service’s cyber vulnerabilities.

Lt. Gen. William J. Bender

Air Force CIO Lt. Gen. William Bender says the service needs a more far-reaching cybersecurity strategy.

Recently installed Air Force CIO Lt. Gen. William Bender is planning a comprehensive review of the service’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities that will go far beyond what he says is the current, narrowly drawn view of USAF networks.

By focusing on Air Force-only networks and not the larger information environment in which they operate, the service’s cybersecurity strategy covers only "20 percent of the problem," Bender told FCW on Dec. 3.

Bender’s plan for a cybersecurity task force is still just that -- it needs to be fleshed out and approved by the Air Force chief of staff and secretary. But Bender, who succeeded retired Lt. Gen. Michael Basla as CIO in September, envisions a "comprehensive, enterprise-level look at the cyber threat as it relates to everything outside of that 20 percent" of Air Force-only networks.

Bender wants the task force to include members from academia, the national lab system, other military services and industry. He hopes to get the project set up in the coming weeks and months, after which it would be about a year before the group delivers a detailed diagnosis of the Air Force's cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and a remedying strategy, to the secretary.

"You have got to know where your problems are before you can do something about it," said Bender, who was previously deputy chief in the Office of Security Cooperation in Baghdad. "As a CIO, I may be able to use policy and guidance to take care of some" vulnerability issues, he added, citing as an example his ability to kick users off a network if their cyber hygiene doesn’t pass muster.

With other military services advising the task force, the Air Force could draw lessons from the Navy’s recently launched cyber task force, which is a deep dive into issues like interoperability and resiliency.

There is a cyber component to a much broader "30-year" Air Force strategy that Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh released in July. That strategy did not delve into a vision for securing Air Force information networks, but it did evince an interest in offensive cyber capabilities, calling cyberspace a "promising [domain] for a true breakthrough in our approach to Air Force core missions." The document describes "non-kinetic effects such as speed and reversibility that may present more attractive options to war-fighting commanders than those we currently offer."

For Jay Healey, a former member of a cyber war-fighting unit in the Air Force who is now a scholar at the Atlantic Council, the cyber component of the 30-year strategy is too preoccupied with offense at the expense of defense. "If I don't get defense right, none of those other offensive capabilities that we have are going to matter at all," he said.

Bender’s new task force will likely focus more on cyber defense, in the form of diagnosing network vulnerabilities, than offense (if it broaches the latter subject at all). But, according to Healey, defense is intimately related to offensive capabilities in cyberspace. How the Air Force balances those two realms could determine the service’s efficacy in cyberspace for years to come.