A new report from the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute urges Air Force leadership to address not treating data as a strategic asset and leveraging industry input as part of a wider effort to meet cyber space challenges.

The report, “The Cyber Edge: Posturing the US Air Force for the Information Age,” released Aug. 30 by retired Air Force Chief Information Officer (CIO) Lt. Gen. William Bender, calls for foundational changes to be implemented by leadership to meet full control of the cyber domain.

Bender suggests shifting from a focus on vulnerabilities of systems to information mission assurance, building a better prepared cyber workforce, leveraging data as a strategic asset and embracing cyber as an operational domain.

“The United States has assembled the best Air Force for the industrial age, and it must now transform itself to retain supremacy in the digital age,” Bender writes in his report.

Incremental change in eliminating outdated policies and information processes will hurt the Air Force’s effort in protecting cyber space, and instead total focus must be placed on ensuring mission assurance across all contested domains, according to Bender.

“The greatest asymmetric challenge the US now faces is the cyber security challenge, where our inability to guarantee mission assurance presents a great advantage to our adversaries,” writes Bender. “The key to effective mission assurance is not to focus on vulnerabilities of the various systems, but instead to assess risk to a given mission.”

The former Air Force CIO argues for a mission assurance approach centered around filtering out low-level threats via effective architecture, devoting more resources to strengthening cyber resiliency of systems and practicing automated, continuous active defense of networks.

For a more cyber-focused Air Force, Bender argues leadership must better leverage the power of industry to take advantage of effective communication and cyber tools that relieve Airmen of unnecessary responsibilities.

“This would allow the Air Force’s organic workforce to focus on mission assurance, by re-purposing and aligning base-level cyber operators to the task of defending weapon systems, as well as the standalone mission networks and critical infrastructure that successful missions depend on,” writes Bender. “The present day expectations of installation commanders are based on legacy activities traditionally provided by communications squadrons that do not represent the best way to use those Airmen. Organizing, training, and equipping a cyber space force that solely provides communication and information capabilities by running cables, maintaining satellite services, and managing base networks is ineffective preparation for current and future conflict.”

To complete the transition to a cyber-prepared Air Force, leadership must address its lack of a data management strategy and find a way to link its wide array of data sources.

Current Air Force data is spread across so separate entities, making it difficult to leverage as a strategic asset, according to Bender. He calls for a new framework to be devised that allows Airmen to more efficiently deliver data and receive it in a resilient environment.

“These technologies need to fit within an initial automated framework to register authoritative data sources, establish an enterprise data dictionary, extract information, apply access controls, and provide analytical support,” says Bender.

He calls for the Air Force to establish a Chief Data Officer position to oversee the development and acquisition of data management from an enterprise level.

“The key attribute the Air Force is missing in the cyber arena is speed. The environment is dynamic, with rapidly advancing technology that has completely outpaced the policies, processes, and business practices we developed decades ago that served us well in a different time but now must be adapted. The Air Force must move to change and innovate if the service is going to survive and thrive in this new information-driven world. If not, the Air Force faces to the prospect of extinction, as the environment we sprang from fades further into the past,” writes Bender.