Maj. Gen. Robert Skinner took the reins at the 24th Air Force, the service’s cyber component to U.S. Cyber Command, in summer 2018.
Air Forces Cyber has a wide-ranging mission to protect and defend the Air Force’s networks and to provide trained and ready forces to conduct cyber ops for combatant commanders. It’s a big job, but Skinner is well-versed in the trade. He’s served as deputy commander for the Joint Force Headquarters Department of Defense Information Networks, chief of staff at the Defense Information Systems Agency and deputy commander of Air Forces Cyber.
C4ISRNET’s Mark Pomerleau spoke with Skinner to discuss his goals for the assignment and what lies ahead for his command and service in the cyber arena.
C4ISRNET: You’ve been in this job a few months. What are your top priorities?
MAJ. GEN. ROBERT SKINNER: The priority is the ability to build a disciplined, ready and proficient force that is lethal in cyberspace.
If you have that then, in my eyes, we’re able to compete, deter and win as necessary in a domain, which isn’t just for cyber, it’s for the joint missions that we’ve been assigned.
Everything rolls underneath that. How we’re doing from an acquisition standpoint in bringing the future faster; how we’re doing from optimizing our foundation from a configuration control standpoint within the cyber domain itself, the advanced tactics, techniques and procedures that our cyber professionals use on a day-to-day basis to be proficient; how we’re leveraging partnerships, whether it’s in academia, in the commercial world, in the defense industrial base or other service components within the department and building our partnerships and alliances.
C4ISRNET: What Air Force-specific initiatives does 24th Air Force have underway?
SKINNER: We’re starting to build out our mission defense teams, which is our ability to have mission assurance at a particular wing and/or lower echelon organization that enables us, from a cyber standpoint, to defend and assure their mission.
If a wing has an F-16 unit, then our mission defense teams understand their weapon system, understand the F-16, understand everything that goes into making that air sorties successful and defending it from a cyber standpoint.
Air Combat Command is looking at optimization of the numbered air forces and the optimization of the mission sets within Air Combat Command.
Part of that is the understanding that information warfare is critical and how we best align the forces under Gen. [James] Holmes [commander of Air Combat Command] and Air Combat Command to get after command and control, after information warfare, after ISR support to the enterprise writ large.
C4ISRNET: Are there other efforts?
SKINNER: Enterprise IT as a service. The Navy has a commercial service provider providing a lot of commodity-tied IT services. Base infrastructure — some enterprise services, like email — they have a commercial provider.
The Air Force has always organically done that ourselves. We have a pilot going on where we have two company leads, AT&T and Microsoft, and we have them going to three bases and surveying the infrastructure, determining how they would best provide that service for the Air Force.
We’re in the crawl phase and trying to determine what are the risks, what do we need before we can actually go Air Force-wide, because we firmly believe that where industry can do things better than the Air Force and it’s not an Air Force core mission we have industry provide that capability as a service for us. That way we can have our airmen focused on our core missions of the Air Force and I’ll say re-mission them, re-role them to be able to provide those capabilities.
C4ISRNET: What will the training for these mission defense teams be like?
SKINNER: In my eyes the [mission defense team] is a [cyber protection team] lite. If I have my way, a lot of training that our cyber protection teams get, our mission defense teams will get the same.
If I can get them through very similar training, then they can go from a F-16 wing to potentially an F-15 wing to potentially a logistics or an air base wing and they still have the foundational capabilities and experiences to be successful with the cyber domain.
We’re very proud of our cyber protection team training and the more of that I can get with our mission defense teams, the more successful they’ll be. Then, our cyber protection teams can really focus on the high-end, the big threats that we’ll run into in a peer competition and with peer adversaries.
C4ISRNET: How can cyber, electromagnetic spectrum operations, electronic warfare and information operations converge?
SKINNER: I’ll be careful. What I will say is there is a firm belief within our Air Force that information operations, electronic warfare, cyber and ISR support ... that the integration, synchronization and alignment of those mission functions and tasks within those areas are critical to our ability to ensure we are capable in the information warfare realm and in the multidomain realm.
I don’t think you can treat them separately. As we continue to have exercises and other forums, we’ve all come to the realization that they must be synchronized, whether that’s under one hat, under multiple hats.
We’ll wait to see what the [numbered Air Force] optimization team recommends to the boss.
If nothing else, they must be synchronized.
C4ISRNET: What do the combatant commands you support want you to provide?
SKINNER: They want it all. As commanders, they realize and understand the importance of cyber.
They’re looking for cyber effects in any space of conflict. Whether that’s from a deter standpoint, whether that’s from a compete standpoint, whether that’s from a win standpoint.
You’ve probably heard Gen. [Paul] Nakasone [commander of U.S. Cyber Command] talk about how we, as a military, must compete below the level of armed conflict because that’s what great-power competition is today. We cede it over and over again that adversaries, and even nations, are operating in cyber below the level of conflict and therefore we have to do the same and we have to be better.
From a combatant commander standpoint, they want more capacity and capability, they want more planning expertise and really what they’re looking for is “how do I bring planning expertise that understands the cyber domain and the other domains together” so they can have a holistic operational plan for their area of responsibility.
C4ISRNET: How has cyber evolved in terms of integration with traditional military operations on the battlefield? What role will the new cyber operations-integrated planning elements have?
SKINNER: Our [planning elements] … are really just starting up.
The combatant commanders are screaming for them because they want that planning capacity. Two years ago, cyber was bolted on at the end and it was kind of a waving of the hand from a cyber-effects standpoint and from a full-spectrum standpoint.
Today, in most places, cyber is being talked about at the front end of the planning cycle. As we move forward, our combatant commanders and mid-level managers and action officers, they may not understand cyber but they understand cyber’s importance to the multidomain fight. They are asking for the planning expertise at the front of the planning cycle versus at the end.
C4ISRNET: What does “defend forward” mean when you’re supporting combatant commands?
SKINNER: It’s really saying where adversaries operate is where we want to operate. We call that defend forward, we call that persistent engagement, but cyber is a domain that is full of activity on a day-to-day basis. In order for us to be successful, in order for us to refine our tradecraft, to make sure that our tactics, our techniques and procedures are refined, we must have representative ranges that we can train on. But there is no range that is ever as good as the real world and a real environment.
C4ISRNET: How have some of the new authorities helped ease the process to plan and execute cyber operations?
SKINNER: Today we are in a much better position than we were six months ago, than we were nine months ago. The interagency process has really been streamlined. Everyone has their say at the right place and based on the delegations from the White House down to the individual departments, it allows for them greater flexibility and agility. From a 24th Air Force standpoint, we are very happy with the progress we’ve made in the last year.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.