CIO's Role has Greater Impact in the Information Age

Lt Gen Bill Bender, Chief, Information Dominance & CIO, United States Air Force
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Technology has shifted from innovative conveniences to critical dependencies which affect every part of our lives: travel, commerce, media, medicine, the list goes on. Technological changes continue to occur at break-neck speeds. Historically, the locus of innovation was either focused on defense, or quickly retrofitted for military operations (airplanes, jet engines, missile technology). Through the Industrial Age, the Defense sector was on the leading edge of technological advances. However, as we transition to the Information Age, that locus of innovation has shifted from heavyweight defense contractors to tech savvy Silicon Valley startups. As the Chief Information Officer of a 620,000 member institution, I must establish policies and guidance to provision mission-essential technology develop expert proficiency among the workforce, and overcome challenges similar to those encountered by industry CIOs.

 Leadership: Today’s CIO requires leadership in foresight and action, a special kind of leadership. CIOs must articulate a clear vision, develop agile processes, and encourage innovative behaviors in their workforce—all three are necessary if the CIO is to be successful. At the same time, CIOs must work hard to acquire new insights, develop ideas, turn those ideas into technologies and envision the system these technologies will operate in.

One way we’ve standardized approaches within the Air Force IT enterprise is through the Service’s Information Technology Governance (ITG) process. As ITG Board Chairperson, the CIO is the AF focal point for enterprise-level IT discussions and facilitates solutions to problems affecting the entire IT community. The ITG ensures IT solutions are implemented enterprise-wide in accordance with established standards. This construct allows ITrelated issues to be addressed in a streamlined manner and allows CIO oversight of strategic priorities and projects related to IT. Finally, ITG enables stakeholder communication across the enterprise.

Cybersecurity: Another concern is the cyber security challenge associated with providing for the nation’s defense. Similar to industry, cyber vulnerabilities and the risks to mission success must be considered in every weapon system and platform technology, including: aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, radar systems, and guided missiles. The Air Force’s ability to successfully execute its core missions is inextricably tied to its ability to fly, fight and win in a contested cyber domain. Cyber security, however, goes beyond networks and databases. Every switch, router, application, and stand-alone component creates an aperture that can be exploited by adversaries. The CIO role must be operationalized to develop an environment in which vulnerabilities and bad actors can be quickly identified and mitigated.

  ​CIOs must articulate a clear vision, develop agile processes, and encourage innovative behaviors in their workforce 

To address this threat, I’ve spearheaded the stand-up of a task force focused on a comprehensive diagnosis of cyber security vulnerabilities. The intent is to synchronize multiple efforts and studies to address cyber security across the Air Force—focused on assuring the five AF core missions. This will increase the robustness and resilience of critical Air Force systems in and through cyberspace. Current Air Force organizational constructs focus attention and resources on networks but do not provide the basis for improving cyber security posture for mission systems, weapon systems, and industrial control systems. This focused approach will leave our Air Force core missions less vulnerable to exploitation or attack.

Cost Efficiencies: Like most CIOs, I’m also expected to provide technological solutions in the most cost-effective manner. For example, the Air Force spends over $500 million operating its own data centers. Some are large, efficient, and professionally managed. Other data centers consist of a single server sitting under an Airman’s desk. Even the smallest, single-server data center costs the Air Force several thousand dollars per year to operate and maintain ware working to create an environment that moves away from operating and maintaining data centers and towards a model that allows for a scalable fee-for-service. This all must be done in a fiscally constrained environment; so discovery, applications rationalization, and data center closures would happen simultaneously. I understand our fiscal constraints, but I truly believe IT investments are the price of doing business in the 21st century. With the potential risk to operational missions at stake, we cannot afford to delay investments or deliver outdated technology to the field.

Innovation and Speed: The Air Force prides itself on its innovative identity. Today’s Airmen comprise the most technically proficient force to date. They expect to leverage the latest solutions in order to ensure mission success. But the Air Force still exists within a bureaucracy with a decision timeline which often fails to keep pace with innovation. A cultural intervention is needed to ensure new technologies are fielded as expediently as possible. My challenge is to infuse information-age agility into a culture built in the industrial age.

To develop and implement IT, speed must be considered a critical advantage for today’s Air Force: Think big. Start small. Scale fast. However, we are not looking for speed to market. Rather, we must deliver the best and most advanced technology in the hands of our customer—the war fighter. With respect to IT and cyber budgets, the Air Force partners with DoD and Air Force acquisition leaders to streamline our acquisition processes. The Information Technology Governance Executive Board (the decision arm of the ITG) aligns IT investment and acquisition efforts to the Air Force corporate processes. This enables increased agility through execution of responsive, adaptive disciplines to plan, deliver, and manage IT.

Today’s connected world creates considerable vulnerabilities; yet CIOs should view them as mission-impacting opportunities. Today’s CIO must look beyond balance sheets and the technical solutions in order to remain laser-focused upon agile execution of organizational missions. CIOs seek out viable solutions, implement them quickly, integrate them across the enterprise, and manage them to success. I am extremely focused on our mission, and I’m confident in our ability to deliver capabilities which assure victory in air, space, and cyberspace.

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