Thoughts on the Air Force Cyber Symposium

I just returned from Shreveport Louisiana where I participated in the first Air Force Cyber Symposium. I spoke on the topic that I introduced in a previous post; Coding is Maneuver, and then went on to talk about three other ideas that I think the nascent Cyber Command will need to consider carefully. Those topics were cyber situational awareness (and it’s relationship to the geo-spatial battle field), culture, and the necessity of open source.

You can take a look at the slides (which are mostly self explanatory) here:

SlideShare | View | Upload your own

In this post I really want to focus on culture.

The provisional Cyber Command is being established at Barksdale on a bomber base and will carry with it, at least initially, the default culture of the spawning organization. I wonder how compatible that culture will be with the new tasking when you consider the kinds of people that they will need to attract and promote. The last sentence in this article that “we are training killers and not a bunch of geeks” really gives me pause. Does the author of the quote feel that to effectively play to an Air Force audience she has to use a pejorative tone toward the geeks that are the mainstay of today’s cyber domain? If such a bias exists within the force, how damaging will it be to this new command as it works to attract the best talent?

During my presentation I asked the audience how many people had attended a black hat, defcon, or similar kind of event. Very few had. Afterwards a young captain came up to me and said that members of his team would like to attend events like this but don’t for fear that it will be held against them; whether by interfering with their security clearances or in other ways. How can the Air Force create this nascent capability if it’s members feel precluded from participating in the communities of practice that form the basis of the necessary disciplines?

An Air Force pilot today would feel no need to be a member of generalized “pilot communities of practice;” they don’t meet annually with airline pilots at pilot conferences for example. After all, they are members of a pre-eminent force conducting a mature and well-operationalized form of warfare. But, from a developmental point of view, USAF Cyber Command is in the air warfare equivalent of 1914 or so, and in that era (which roughly corresponds to Eugene Hoy Barksdale’s service) air combat was evolving rapidly and U.S. Army pilots were frequently involved in local flying clubs, were learning from European advances, and in general, were engaged in flying as a community.

Cyber Command will be able to leverage the USAF’s positioning among the services as the “technology service,” but it will need to be careful to leave room in the nascent command for the growth of appropriate cultural norms. I’d be inclined to put some space between the new command and it’s SAC / Global Strike heritage and find a nice low slung office building somewhere along Routes 101 or 28 where they would be able to find the right balance between innovating and operationalizing.


  1. Todd - March 1, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    Liked your slides and agree that there are some cultural hurdles to overcome if the AF is going to fight and win in cyberspace. Personally, I think that AFCYBER is the historical equivalent of the Army Air Corps and it is just a matter of time before Cyber breaks off to become a seperate service.

  2. Jim S - March 1, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    @Todd, I really wonder. As you know from the slides part of me agrees with your suggestion that there will ultimately by a USCF or equivalent. The reason I wonder is because the defensive mission requires so much more horizontal collaboration among the services to work. Cyber is a “separate domain” but it is one that exists in the networks and systems owned by the USA, USAF, and USN among others. I’m not sure how the USAF Cyber Command is ultimately going to “fly” in the networks owned by the other services; but I’m not sure if it would work any better if it was spun out of the USAF. Keep in mind, there are many people that think the old TAC part of the USAF should rejoin the Army!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *