TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Unlike the competition for the world’s best fighter jets and other weapon systems, the United States has no technical edge when it comes to defending the nation in cyberspace, the Air Force Sustainment Center’s director of engineering said recently.
“This is an area where the United States does not have a technical advantage over our near peers,” Senior Executive Service member Kevin Stamey said. “Our way of life is really being threatened by things that are happening in the cyber world, and if we don’t either stop that technology or make a leap, literally our way of life can be affected.”
Stamey was the keynote speaker Aug. 18 at the 13th annual Technology Day sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Oklahoma City chapter. He spoke at the Tinker Club about trends in the cyber domain, where the Air Force defends against threats that include hackers hunting for classified information or planting malicious code to damage or destroy communications and weapon systems.
Stamey said the United States and its allies rely heavily on interconnected communication systems for capabilities ranging from command and control to operating an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle anywhere across the globe from the United States. The technology is a great advantage in warfighting, but also vulnerable.
If an adversary can do things such as block communication to UAVs, prevent the updating of maps or interfere with mission planning data, “we can’t conduct a modern battle today,” the AFSC’s senior engineering manager said. “If our adversaries can take that away from us, it gives them an advantage.”
Besides network attacks, potential opponents can exploit cyber weaknesses in other ways, such as altering commercial software before it’s installed by Department of Defense organizations or planting back-door weaknesses in hardware, such as processors, used to build a weapon system.
“They have the money and the patience to embed themselves in our supply chain, so you can’t assume that the compilers and the drivers that you use haven’t been compromised by adversaries,” Stamey told about 60 Tinker scientists and engineers. “They can create a vulnerability that they may not exploit until they need to, and that’s dangerous for us because those things are hard to find without some of the special tools that some of our industry folks are developing for us. Without those kinds of tools, it’s very difficult to find a vulnerability that’s been introduced to your system that’s not been activated yet.”
He told Tinker professionals that our nation depends on their work for its defense. The United States will need thousands more like them in the coming years.
Stamey noted that the publicly available “Cyber Vision 2025” Air Force planning document estimates China will be graduating 8,500 Ph.D. students in computer fields by 2025. The United States is projected to certify 3,800 that year, which potentially illustrates the lagging capacity of cyber professionals compared to near-peer nations.
“Our standing as a world leader, our standing as a superpower, is at threat because of the nonexistent technology gap in the world of cyber,” he said. “I think we all know that cyber is now part of our battle space. It’s not just air and space for the United States Air Force now, it’s air, space and cyber and we have to be conscious of that.”
Stamey provides leadership to more than 4,500 science and engineering professionals at Robins AFB, Georgia, Hill AFB, Utah, and Tinker AFB.