Joint Staff Leader Touts Software Engineers on the Frontlines

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Air Force

Strategists have said the nation with the best software will win the next war.

A recent multi-national exercise involving U.S. forces in Finland illustrated the importance of patching and fixing flawed software in the heat of battle, a senior Air Force officer said June 6.

“When it comes to cyber, this demarcation line between industry and the warfighter is gone. You’re in the foxhole with me building code because that’s how fast it’s going to happen,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. B.J. Shwedo, chief information officer and director for command, control, communications and computers/cyber for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The days when bugs in computer systems are noted on an index card, then the problem is sent back to the factory of a contractor that takes eight months to fix the problem are over, Shwedo said.

With great power competition growing between the United States, Russia and China, that kind of slow process won’t fly anymore, he said at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies talk in Arlington, Virginia.

He observed several instances of fixing software on the fly at the recent Bold Quest exercise in Finland, where 15 allied nations carried out exercises. Not everything was interoperable, he noted.

There was one problem messaging French Rafael jet fighters. A team of French, German and Americans created code that bridged the gap on site.

Organizers also found that one of the weapon systems scheduled for a live-fire exercise had some problems at the “ones and zeroes level” that would have created targeting issues.

“They corrected those ones and zeroes the week before they had the live fire and the live fire worked like a champ,” Shwedo said.

In another case, a French jet fighter was not able to communicate with U.S Air Force joint terminal controllers, who call in air strikes. “They created code to undo a patch that was not allowing them to talk,” he said.

“This is how the future war fight is going to happen,” he added.

The U.S. military still has different weapon systems that have problems talking, he said.

Many of these “siloed” systems were developed during the global war on terror years when one system could be brought to bear on the enemy in a permissive environment. But that won’t work with larger, more sophisticated foes such as China and Russia, he said.

Getting different communications systems to connect cannot be pushed off into the future because success against these advanced adversaries will hinge on secure, dependable communications, he said.

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work, build code on the floor right now. Make sure it works. Make sure you can talk,’” he said.

Shwedo is beginning to see some recognition that there is problem and funding is starting to flow toward solutions for interoperability issues, he said.

The Air Force also has to be ready to respond to successful cyber attacks, he said. Foes see military aircraft as “flying computers,” he added. “What bad guys are trying to do is get those backdoors into those flying computers,” he said.

The Air Force now has mission defense teams to fix any damage done. They are co-located with the weapon system and they know its infrastructure inside and out. “It’s their job to hover over the target and figure out if the bad guys have got backdoors and then remediate them,” Shwedo said.

If they get in over their head, they can call a cyber protection team. “They have other tools and training to go after and remediate the capability,” he added.

And if they can’t remedy the issue, the cyber resiliency office for weapons systems is called in to help, he said. But even they are not the last line of defense.

If those three teams are stumped, they can call U.S. Cyber Command or National Security Agency red teams for backup, Shwedo said.

Topics: Air Force News, Infotech

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