As commanding general of Army Communications-Electronics Command, Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford has a big job: He oversees the supplying and sustainment of all things communications-related for the service. That's a huge range of things, "whether it sits on a soldier, or it's in a helicopter, or it's in a plane, or it's in a tank, or someplace else on the battlefield … once it's fielded, I do sustainment for that. No matter how long it sits in the inventory," according to Crawford.

The result is a myriad of competing priorities, logistical challenges and key goals in communications and IT that boost Army readiness. A significant piece that might not immediately spring to mind when it comes to CECOM is training soldiers to operate in cyberspace. Crawford discussed those topics and more in a recent interview with C4ISRNET Editor Amber Corrin.

Tell us a little about CECOM and your job there. What's at the top of your to-do list?

When you think about the business side of the Army, about 70 percent of the cost of everything we buy is in sustainment. It's not just tactical communications, though, it's also all of my [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platforms. When you think about where we've come after 15 years of continuous combat, the ability to see ourselves and see the enemy has become one of those things not only needed up at our major headquarters, but it's needed forward on the battlefield, down at the company level. So you've seen exponential growth in terms of the requirement for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability in our formations.

The sustainment of the ISR platforms spans everything from night vision goggles to radars and everything in between, to include bay stations for a lot of our unmanned aerial systems that are out there in inventory. So the thing that takes up the vast majority of my time is the sustainment mission, which is my primary focus within [Army Materiel Command]. Again, AMC is one of the three major headquarters within the Army; within AMC the sustainment of ISR platforms and the sustainment of tactical communications platforms is my primary role. Then there's another piece of that and it's called software.

So about 70 percent of the Army's software is run out of my headquarters, as I have what's called the Software Engineering Center for the Department of the Army as one of my subordinate commands. When you think about software, you've got to think about the exponential growth that's occurred over the last 15 years in continuous combat. The good news is it's a market-driven growth, meaning industry, so we talk a lot about innovation. The ability to innovate quickly and improve the capability on the battlefield has actually been in software. [Devices] change and it's relatively easy and cheap to change sizes and shapes, but the real power of that device is the increase in the power of the software. It's no different on our weapons systems.

It's a double-edged sword; the double-edged sword is absolutely, it should be cheaper to modernize. [Tremendous growth] has been powered by the partnerships with industry, the power of our small businesses and the agility of our small businesses to innovate, but almost all of that has been software-driven.

The double-edged sword piece of this I'm talking about is that the institution is still a hardware-based institution. So the fundamental question as we look over the horizon is: When it comes to software, how do we properly posture ourselves to thrive in this environment when a lot of the institutional processes are hardware-based?

We all hear so much about software-defined radios – software-defined everything, really. How much of that is part of what you're working on?

As you can imagine, it's very complex, even how software is defined has evolved over the years — and it's a full-time job. So software-defined radios is one of them; a radio is no longer a radio. ... Most radios now are network devices; therefore by definition it's used more for data probably, especially with the current generation, than it is for the things we used to use it for back even five, six, seven, eight years ago.

So it's radios, but it's also platforms. We've hosted [two events] called the Software Solarium. If I'd said we're going to have a software meeting, nobody would've come, but because we called it a solarium, it was about pulling together all of the key stakeholders in the software space to have a conversation about what our posture should be when it comes to software. What position should we take? Who are all of the stakeholders in the software space? And so we developed some strategic questions for the Army, as we go forward, and we're working our way through socializing this.

One of the goals is optimization, so in terms of oversight, where should the policy governance and oversight for software writ large be across the department? And it's not about ownership; this is a much bigger discussion than who should own it, but it's about what should our position be on that particular subject in terms of policy and oversight.

One of the other things that we talked about, there's really four lines of effort, is how do we drive efficiencies? Most of the policy that governs software, with a few instances that differ, predate even 9/11 and how we think about software. Think about the exponential growth that's occurred back even five years in the software space. So what do we need to do about policy? Do we have that right in terms of software?

The other thing is that we're about 85 percent contracted in the development and sustainment of software. Is that a good number? What process are we going to use, since it doesn't exist right now, to even determine if that's a good number?

There's nobody bad in this process, but given where we are and given the complexity of the environment ahead, should we be thinking about it from a government perspective? Are there skill sets that ought to be government-led?

So there's lots of discussion about that out there in industry and [from] every company that I talk to, every service — because we're not doing this in a vacuum from the Army's perspective. We're partnering with the United States Air Force, we're having conversations with others who are having similar challenges when it comes, again, back to the software discussion. You could think of this, in terms of lines of effort under the software discussion, as cyber.

Where does cyber fit in here and with what CECOM does?

What should the connection between developing and sustaining software be to the cyber enterprise? There are great pockets of excellence, but what I'd like to have is an always-on situational awareness and situational understanding of what that connection should be between developing and sustaining and the cyber enterprise. So right now, it is robust, but it's robust in pockets of excellence. I think we can do better and I think we're going to do better. I think this is potentially an institutional gap that we're going to have to close and so there are a lot of people working it. We're not starting from zero, but I think this is one of those areas when I talk about relevance in the future. And you think about what the war-fighting issues are and how software plays into that: It's connecting, developing, sustaining, the process of developing and sustaining software to the cyber enterprise.

Development and sustainment of software, that process has gone unchanged, I'd say, in the last five to 10 years. Just think for a minute, you could write down five things that have changed in cyber in terms of building capability, in terms of tools, just in sheer numbers, complexity of the threat that has changed in the last three or four years. Yes, we've got a development sustainment process, it's a legacy process that's been unchanged for the last five to 10 years, and so that's got to change.

Beyond software and the legacy processes, how is CECOM contributing to Army readiness in cyberspace?

When you think of the Army's cyber protection teams, the first thing that comes to mind is normally not CECOM's touch points to cyber.

But down at Fort Gordon, we're literally training the cyber protection teams, and so when I talk about sustainment, it's also sustainment training. CECOM's contribution, one of the greatest contributions beyond the software piece, is we're down on the front end of training those cyber protection teams. So I think if you talk to the cyber brigade commander about the relevance of CECOM, he will tell you that we're making a difference in terms of the instruction that we're giving. So it gets to the readiness of the cyber protection teams that we're on the front end actually conducting the training, and [one of] the biggest things is the software discussion and leading the narrative when it comes to connecting software.

In the cyber community, they've got visibility of threat factors and the evolution of the threat. They might come back and tell me, once we make this connection: "Listen, the processes that you're using to develop and sustain software are obsolete and stop doing it immediately." All right, that's the kind of collaboration that I wanted, that I created; this is bigger than: "I'm going to give you some people to sit in your headquarters, and you give me some people to sit in mine." This is about true collaboration that leads to innovation that leads to actually producing a better product in terms of capability.

Let's talk about the future. A lot is changing in the Army, with a shift toward smaller teams deployed to a range of places with various levels of connectivity. What does that mean for CECOM?

I truly believe among the greatest challenges of the next, I'd say, five to 10 years, will be overcoming the last 15 years of continuous combat, of continuous engagement around the world. There are a lot of people who like to say: "We've been here before." Then we start with the various wars of the past and we walk our way into this.

I think one of the things that is fundamentally different is after almost all of those past conflicts there was at least a period of relative peace. You don't find that here now. I mean, we're fighting Ebola. We're fighting fires. We're still engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. So, the question becomes: Is this really the same as the past? I would argue that it's not. It's fundamentally different, and you're looking at an enemy that is asymmetrically and fundamentally different than anything that we've dealt with in the past.

What this gets at is the Army has a new operating concept when you think about the future. It's been out for about a year and a half, and the premise is that the future is not only unknown but it's unknowable and it's constantly changing. So, when we start to develop our leaders now, it lends credence to this idea of an agile and adaptive leader that's required for the future. I believe in that because I was in Europe from 2011 to 2014. So, I watched what happened. I remember we had headlines that said, "Last Army tank leaves Europe" in 2012. I remember it; it was on the cover of Stars and Stripes. What are we doing right now? We're rotating forces back into that part of the world as quickly as we possibly can. We developed a construct that allows us to have them be stationed here but to rotate combat power back into Europe and other places.

So, I think when you think about the future, you've got to start with the actual operating construct. But I believe one of the biggest things about the future is going to be overcoming the last 15 years of continuous combat. There are multiple facets to that discussion.

Good news story, we're doing it at a time when I believe we have the best led, best-educated force we've ever had in the history of the Army.

At any given time in any of the Baltic states, you might find that the senior United States Army official in that country representing the Army and talking to ambassadors, etc., is a young captain, a company-grade officer and his first sergeant that's a part of a brigade combat team that's been rotated over to cover that part of the world. That's a lot of responsibility on young people. So I'm not one of these people who sit around wringing their hands about the future and the next generation. I think they're strong. I think they're very strong.

Our job has to be to leverage the lessons of the past because we're a learning organization. That's what we do, and one of the things that separates us from every other developed force is our ability.

Although we have great partners, the thing that really separates us is the speed at which we learn, the speed at which we innovate. The thing we've got to do in the future, though, we've got to learn faster and we've got to innovate faster.