The Air Force recently stood up a new numbered Air Force for information warfare within Air Combat Command, consolidating the 24th and 25th Air Forces into the 16th Air Force, also known as Air Forces Cyber. The new entity, based at Joint-Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, is now responsible for coordinating electronic warfare, cyber operations and integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.
Meanwhile, the service has also graduated its first cadre of multi-domain warfare officers out of the 505 Command and Control Wing at Hurlbert Field, Florida, creating a new 13O Air Force specialty code as the U.S. military looks to train for potential conflict across all domains.
Air Combat Command Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Christopher Weggeman, who served as the 24th Air Forces Commander and Air Force Cyber Command Commander from 2016 to 2018, discussed the implications of these changes in an exclusive interview with Defense Daily at Langley AFB, Virginia. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The way we speak about cyber has changed over the past few years, from exclusively defensive to speaking openly about offensive capabilities. With the establishment of the 16th Air Force, it appears solid moves are being made in this area. What more needs to be done?
The real answer is we’re still closer to the beginning than the middle in my opinion. We have some authorities with the National Security Presidential Memorandum-13 [authorized in 2018], and the policies we have are giving us greater authorities to deliver outcomes in, from and through cyber spaces. That’s a good thing. If you think of payloads, weapons, being able to maneuver and defend, we still need to continue to work on our technology and our capabilities to help us and the forces that work through the cyber domain to do their jobs.
We haven’t been doing this very long. If you think of modern aviation – if you think about maybe the ‘50s and ‘60s, the airplanes that we had then and the airplanes we have now, it takes a long time. We have to build out our weapons systems some more.
One of the most important challenges is we have to train, educate and professionally develop our human capital in the information warfare domain. It’s probably the most competitive space from a career discipline professional competency that we have right now in the U.S., maybe even some of the international countries as well. And the services are competing amongst themselves for the same talent. So we have to make sure that we’re not just focusing on the widgets and the hardware and the software but also on the human capital behind that.
Is there sufficient advocacy on the Hill for what you are trying to do with cyber warfare?
There’s a lot of advocacy on the Hill for what we’re doing, and our great power competitors are making that easier and easier with the things they’re trying to do to us in competition and deterrence – in terms of the Russian elections, Ukraine as a cyber proving ground for the Russian cyber organizations, China’s intellectual property theft. So the Hill is fully energized. I personally think what we might see is the Hill may say, “You’re not putting enough heat and light on this, DoD; let’s go faster.”
When I was the Air Forces Cyber commander, I had the tyranny of distance, being in San Antonio. The Hill was hearing about what Army Cyber Command was doing, and what Marine Forces Cyber Command was doing, but they weren’t hearing about what the Air Force was doing. And so I got up there. … We basically went there every month and met with staffers at the Top Secret level. And we showed them, ‘We’re doing this right now. We are in constant contact, we are maneuvering against seeing and knowing adversaries, we are delivering effects in from and through cyberspace as ordered by the president and the secretary of defense.’ It blew their mind, what we actually can do and what we actually are doing.
We’ve learned that that just pays huge dividends. We will continue to educate on the Hill, and the most important thing is we have to do it at the right level so they can actually see the game.
From your perspective, how long has the 16th Air Force been needed?
I think our timing is pretty good. We talk about it being cyber space operations, global integrated ISR, electronic warfare and then information operations. All those have to be beyond their formative years, in some level of maturity before you can effectively integrate them and have something.
We may have been able to do it a year ago maybe, but much earlier than that, the cyberspace operations foundation wasn’t set; we didn’t have the advocacy that we have now for electronic warfare and more broadly electromagnetic spectrum operations.
It’s a big muscle movement. One is a component command – Air Forces Cyber – that is doing warfighting missions for three combatant commands, and the other is an organization that does global integrated ISR for basically all of the Department of Defense.
Any plans for a footprint in Austin?
There already are relationships with all of the innovation agencies – the Defense Innovation Unit, AFWERX, and of course Army Futures Command. We’re actually now working on an enduring collaboration relationship with Texas A&M. There’s a lot of relationships, a lot of collaboration already going on with that and I do believe there will be more now.
We also have to figure out the footprint we want to have up toward Ft. Meade, Maryland and the D.C. area. That’s the other center of gravity for all things information warfare. The Army and the Navy and the Marine Corps have been strategic in the footprint they have on the Ft. Meade campus. We have a wing there now with them. But the numbered Air Force command and Air Forces Cyber may seek to have a greater footprint there.
How does the new Air Force specialty code for multi-domain warfare officers fit into Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s wider plan for multi-domain command and control. And from a base level, what does this new position mean for the Air Force?
From my perspective, we finally have on the map the most critical element in the multi-domain operations and multi-domain command and control. And it’s not the technology, and it’s not the policies – it’s the human weapon system.
These are the first 27 people that literally help [make that happen]. They’re really focused on four or five of the primary air operations centers where we are responsible for command and control: in the European battlespace, in the Pacific battlespace, obviously in U.S. Central Command where we have three hot fights going on right now, and then U.S. Northern Command. I think there was one graduate that went to the National Space Defense Center as well.
Their job, as the first of their kind … is to go to these air operations centers and help the team understand how to effectively plan, integrate and develop opportunities – to deliver effects in all domains that create dilemmas that our adversaries can’t handle at a tempo they can’t handle.
How would you metaphorically describe their role?
I would say that in the planning phase right now, they are like architects. They are going to look at how to solve a problem, how to construct something, and they are going to figure out what is the design, what are the materials, how do they go together to give me an effective outcome. That’s the planning side.
On the operational execution side and the command and control side, I think they’re more like a conductor of an orchestra. They are going to have to make sure there’s harmony, people are staying on tempo and [coordinate] all of the things are coming together to generate the outcome, whether it’s a concerto or it’s effects in multiple domains and multiple places across the battlespace.
Are you already getting some feedback from those officers that will feed into Fiscal Year 2021 Program Objective Memorandum deliberations?
A: I think it’s going to be more ’22. There are things that we learned through previous analysis of alternatives. We’re trying to set the foundation for multi-domain operations. [For the] ‘21 POM, what we’ve done is we’ve identified the things that set the foundation, and that’s kind of what we’re advocating for there. We are putting more money to get the schoolhouse and to have the capacity that we need in terms of throughput. Now that we have a foundation set, we’ll start working on the concrete mission threads that allow us to actually do multi-domain command-and-control, and give us the data feeds and the tactics, techniques and procedures we need that will actually inform the ‘22 POM.