WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s top IT official warned this week that the service needs to continue to increase investment in information technology as the Pentagon prepares for flat or declining budgets, or risk falling behind.

“While we’re entering that world of flat or declining budget, most likely, we are also entering a world where the entire rest of the commercial world, their IT spending is going [up],” Lauren Knausenberger, the Air Force chief information officer, said March 9 at the AFCEA Rocky Mountain Cyberspace Symposium. “They’re making trades where better operations means fewer people having to fight through manual process[es], and where they’re spending more and more on their digital infrastructure because they know that it’s the foundation for their future competitive advantage. They will not be in business if they don’t make this investment. And we know more and more that we will not be in business if we don’t make this investment.”

Knausenberger’s comments come as debate swirls on Capitol Hill over the future of the defense budget. The latest expectation is a flat defense budget that will total $704 billion to $708 billion, an amount that analysts expect will cut into procurement and research.

The Biden administration’s recently released interim national security guidance that said the U.S. military needs to “shift our emphasis from unneeded legacy platforms and weapons systems to free up resources for investments in the cutting-edge technologies and capabilities.” All the services have efforts underway to create complex future networks to enable joint war fighting and to modernize other parts of their information technology enterprise. Recent government cybersecurity compromises affecting the IT supply chain have underscored the need to invest in modernizing legacy systems and boost network safeguards.

The Air Force has made a public push in the last few years to upgrade its digital infrastructure, using new cloud and software development platforms. Knausenberger leads the Air Force’s effort to burn down legacy systems and reduce manual processes, a project dubbed “Operation Flamethrower.” The goal of that project, Knausenberger said, is to “ruthlessly attack manual process, we get after redundant IT and we just get rid of all of that redundant policy that’s not ready for 21st century.”

She encouraged airmen to take initiative in automating manual IT processes that can easily be replaced, adding that if the automation replaces their job, “we’ll find you another job.”

“We have so much need,” Knausenberger said. “We need our airmen to be writing code. We need our airmen to be learning about cloud engineering. We need that next generation of AI algorithm developers, we need folks that understand comms, and an environment that includes Starlink, 5g and LTE and whatever else comes next.”

Knausenberger’s comments were echoed at the event by Col. Andrew D’Ippolito, the A-6 director at Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, who recently took part in an on-ramp event for the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, the service’s effort for Joint All-Domain Command and Control. JADC2 is a Joint Staff-led effort to connect the best sensor with the best shooter. D’Ippolito outlined several lessons from the ABMS event that common across the service: the Air Force and DoD aren’t keeping pace with commercial technology, the acquisition process is holding the DoD back, and the culture needs to change.

D’Ippolito said the biggest obstacle to JADC2 is the service’s AF Network and AFNET-Secure.

“Our AFNET and our AFNET-S are not capable of managing the demands of what JADC2 actually requires at this time,” D’Ippolito said, because those networks can’t handle the vast amounts of data that must be transported under the new joint war-fighting concept.

“We need big pipes, and we need large throughput,” he said of the data demands. “There’s no doubt about that.”

For the Air Force to move forward successfully, the service components must get behind the efforts pushed down by Knausenberger, he said.

“The first step is to get on board with Ms. Knausenberger and with ACC’s [Air Combat Command] thoughts and plans to establish a rock sold digital infrastructure,” D’Ippolito said.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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