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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) Years ago, a former Air Force Chief Information Security Officer Mr. Peter Kim clearly explained that cybersecurity, data management and processing and information management has migrated far beyond the world of IT to encompass larger weapons platforms, combat networking security and AI-enabled data analysis.

What may have previously been thought of as primarily fundamental to IT, data systems, servers, cloud migration and computer-based cybersecurity innovation has in recent years exploded to increasingly incorporate a massive sphere of additional technologies.

Flying Computer

This may seem self-evident enough and have been known for many years, as the F-35 has come to be known as a “flying computer,” unmanned systems perform high-speed data processing and “transmission” from the point of collection, and multiple nodes across a joint-multidomain theater now rely upon a larger sphere of transport layer technologies in need of security such as software programmable radio, wireless RF guidance systems, GPS transmissions and even emerging optical forms of data transit.

F-35 Cockpit Demonstrator

F-35 Cockpit Demonstrator

This means larger platforms such as stealth bombers, tanks and Navy ships are not only war platforms but “nodes” within a larger meshed network through a joint force. This is the conceptual foundation of the Pentagon’s fast-evolving Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort, which not only relies upon high-speed, accurate organization and transmission of data but naturally must also secure and “harden” that data.

This fundamental principle, challenge or predicament one might say, has not been lost on the Air Force, as increased cyber reliance introduces new, potentially unanticipated vulnerabilities as well. This is part of why the Pentagon is working quickly on information assurance technologies and building in redundancies through things like large numbers of Medium-and-Low-Earth Satellite launches. Should one node or method of transmission be destroyed or disabled, there will be others to sustain operations.

Years ago, the Air Force sought to jump in front of this by announcing and implementing a 7-point cyber resilience plan aimed at anticipating and thwarting or fending off cyber instructions. The plan, outlined years ago by former Air Force Commander of Air Force Materiel Command Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, called for a number of key initiatives to “bake in” cyber protections during early phases of weapons development. Much of this involved attempted “mock” cyber attacks and various efforts to penetrate sensitive guidance systems and communications networks for the specific purpose of “hardening” them to safeguard information.

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Video Above: A Warrior Maven exclusive interview with US Air Force Maj. Gen. & Commander of the Air Force Research Lab, Heather Pringle.

This effort, considered forward thinking and enterprising at the time, continues with intensity today at places such as the Air Force Research Laboratory where teams of scientists and computer experts explore the realm of the possible when it comes to cyber innovations and cutting edge cybersecurity for both near and long-term applications.

“We have a team up in Rome, New York, that is all about information, science and technology. And they're doing such a great job of looking at a number of aspects of how we best use data and how we collect data? How do we store data? How do we protect data and move data to where it needs to be so that we can leverage it for information and faster, better decisions,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commander, Air Force Research Laboratory, told Warrior in an interview.

Perhaps the best and most relevant example of this can be found through software. Software upgrades, increasingly able to increase performance, security and precision without needing to completely rebuild new hardware configurations, continues to explode with success across DoD. While this of course pertains to networking, it is also equally critical when it comes to radar systems, weapons guidance and large platform functionality. For instance, new threat data can be added to existing radar “boxes” to increase its ability to detect otherwise unrecognizable threats. The F-35s computer based “mission data files” or threat library can be updated with new specifics on enemy targets when critical new information is learned.

The F-22, in yet another critical example, massively overhauled the performance of its AIM-9X and AIM-120D weapons through sweeping software upgrades. This technological possibility is why weapons systems pretty much across the board are now being built with what’s called “open architecture,” meaning the use of common standards and IP protocol designed to enable continued interoperability as new technologies emerge.

Former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper explained this phenomenon rather simply, saying software will likely decide who “wins the next war.”

Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.