Inside the Air Force’s Scramble to Telework During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Air Force’s information technology enterprise is facing an unprecedented test.

The coronavirus pandemic has shocked global economies, sent nations into lockdown, and overwhelmed hospitals in some of the largest American cities. As the U.S. workforce adjusts to the new reality of working from home, the virus’s spread is forcing the IT that supports millions of military and civilian personnel to sink or swim.

Building on incremental changes that were already in progress, Air Force officials are trying to turn what they call “20th-century IT for a 21st-century service” into an enterprise that keeps their air, cyber, and space missions going uninterrupted. If they succeed, this urgent recognition of IT as a top priority could reverberate far into the future for a better connected, digitally savvy force.

As many as 4 million DOD employees are now teleworking, Air Force Lt. Gen. B.J. Shwedo, the Joint Staff’s chief information officer and its director for command, control, communications, computers, and cyber, said April 13. That includes 60 percent of staff at the Pentagon in Virginia, and a significant portion of the Air Force’s approximately 685,000-person workforce.

“This has really been done at a pace, speed, and scale that has not been seen before,” said A.G. Hatcher, who oversees the Air Force’s $17 billion IT and cyber portfolio as acting deputy chief information officer. “These [network upgrades] are things that normally take weeks and months—in some cases, probably years to get done.”

Air Force IT frustrates Airmen to the point of being a retention issue. IT has suffered from taking a backseat to other service priorities, as officials valued security over utility and ended up years behind the private sector. For all the talk of rapid acquisition, IT upgrades are woefully slow: The service is now rolling out Microsoft Office 365, the workplace software suite launched in 2011.

The COVID-era IT response aims to change that. Starting in late February, the Air Force began offering improved virtual private networks so employees can remotely stay in contact with their offices, connecting users to a suite of collaboration tools like chat and videoconferencing. It is also handing out secure laptops, alongside about 20 other technology solutions.

At the beginning of the year, the Air Staff did not have the teleworking tools, capability, or capacity it needed to do the work of the Air Force’s Secretary and Chiefs, according to Staff Director Lt. Gen. Timothy Fay.

“The first few days on our virtual private networks … I will liken it to, probably, driving on [I-395] pre-COVID,” Fay said. “Full-contact sport, very difficult bumper-to-bumper traffic where you would come to a standstill quite frequently.”

Things aren’t perfect, but they have improved. Task forces are troubleshooting complaints and building up bandwidth in hotspots with subpar connectivity. In late March, USAF said it was fixing a problem that requires users to enter their PIN multiple times. One consultant who spoke to Air Force Magazine has run into the PIN issue, and said he’s cut back on his Air Force projects while teleworking because of system glitches.

Before the pandemic, the Air Force averaged 4,500 VPN sessions a day, with a maximum capacity of around 9,000 sessions. That has jumped to 93,000 sessions per day and a maximum capacity of 240,000. Within the next couple of weeks, users at overseas bases will have the capacity for another 200,000 connections through a partnership with the Defense Information Systems Agency.

For Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members, daily connectivity has grown from about 800 sessions to around 7,000.

“The first week was rough. If you weren’t logged on early, you weren’t getting on until after afternoon. … Now I rarely have an issue getting on. It’s slower during the morning peak but still functional,” said an Air Force officer who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “You have to have a DOD-issued laptop. … Most people don’t have one, which limits their access because a lot of DOD websites require VPN access.”

VPNs let Air Force employees access Office 365 through a program known as Cloud-Hosted Enterprise Services, or CHES. It opened to 600,000 users in October, and is expanding this year to add 110,000 users in the Air National Guard and the D.C. area.

While CHES is permanent, it’s not mobile-friendly and is available only to people with a certain ID card. Users can’t record audio or video meetings, and CHES limits interaction between Pentagon agencies. So the Pentagon came up with a temporary solution for the entire DOD known as Commercial Virtual Remote, which launched March 27.

“CVR provides users with a temporary Microsoft [Office 365] collaboration suite solution, consisting of tools such as Teams, SharePoint, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage capability,” according to an Air Force document explaining the differences between CVR and CHES. 

CVR can be accessed from any device, without a VPN connection or a service member ID, and offers voice, video chat, file sharing, and more. It’s now available to 740,000 Air Force accounts.

Fay said CVR let him host a “seamless” tabletop exercise with more than 100 people around the globe using video conferencing with breakout rooms. Others are using teleworking software for everything from change-of-command ceremonies to industry days to digital happy hours.

But there’s a hitch: CVR expires in September.

“This service will only be accessible for the length of the COVID-19 crisis (six months). The licenses will expire on 15 Sept 2020, at which time all Teams, chats, channels, and files saved in the CVR environment will be erased and sanitized,” the document said. “There will be NO enterprise mass migration of data—users will be responsible for data migration, and will receive an email at least two weeks prior to termination of the CVR environment to do so.”

That prospect is dissuading some Airmen from embracing software that could make their lives easier in the short term.

“At this point, if it’s going to be only a temporary thing, I won’t use it,” the Air Force officer said. “Not worth the effort to transition to something that’s going to disappear in a couple months.”

Brig. Gen. Chad Raduege, Air Combat Command’s chief information officer and director of cyberspace and information dominance, calls that feeling “app fatigue.” CVR is unifying the armed forces, he said, and the Air Force owes it to its Airmen to continue CVR past the pandemic and stop jumping from software to software.

ACC has communicated that message to Air Force leaders, and Hatcher said the Pentagon is reevaluating its plan for CVR.

“In terms of coming up with a transition plan, there are options that are being looked at at the OSD level for us to continue to be able to use it,” Hatcher said. “The voices are loud and clear to us that we can’t go back. … We just want to capitalize on this opportunity to continue to push this tech envelope that we’ve been doing, that allows our folks to be productive from home.”

Hardware solutions are also in the mix. Air Force acquisition boss Will Roper wants to provide as many as 4,000 DeviceONE-enabled laptops that connect to classified DOD networks and Air Force cloud storage. DeviceONE is part of the Air Force’s networking vision known as the Advanced Battle Management System. 

The Air Force Research Laboratory developed DeviceONE through its SecureView classified networking program, which has been deployed to more than 12,000 users across the U.S. government since 2011. The jump kits are a combination of a virtual desktop that stores classified information, a network that lets users access the data from almost anywhere, and a commercial laptop. Materials cost less than $2,500 per person, according to AFRL.

“The first round of these specific DeviceONE ‘jump kits’ have been fielded to 40 users across AFRL, [Pacific Air Forces], and other users in the Air Force,” an AFRL spokesman said April 22.

Roper said key leaders would be among the first to receive a DeviceONE unit, which ideally would let users work from home rather than go into an office to handle secret-level information on specialized computers or in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. Other units would be spread among USAF program offices.

“We’ve ordered 50 and have plans to order 400. We would like to order 4,000,” Roper told reporters in April. “We need funding to do that and there are a lot of things that need funding.” 

As Air Force networks get more crowded, they also become more vulnerable to attack. Shwedo said DOD has seen a rise in “spear phishing,” or attempts to steal sensitive information by getting people to click on malicious links. The department is getting better at understanding how those phishing attempts work and where they come from, Shwedo said.

Sixteenth Air Force, home to the service’s cyber offensive and defensive units, is keeping an eye out for disinformation and stressing the need for cyber hygiene to avoid getting hacked at home.

“Start thinking about things like, hey, what type of information are we talking about on this unclassified phone call,” Raduege said. “As I start accessing these collaboration tools and I start chatting, do I need to think about FOUO-type email? Am I putting PII, personally identifiable information? Am I revealing some sort of health care information?”

Over the past few years, the Air Force has begun outsourcing IT services at bases across the country to companies like Microsoft, AT&T, and Accenture so those Airmen could instead focus on cyber defense. Hatcher did not answer whether the Air Force could need to grow its cybersecurity workforce to accommodate future remote work, but noted that the service wants to find people who are digitally savvy in general.

Looking ahead, some officials believe the current crisis will spur a greater focus and higher spending on IT. Roper believes spending more on IT will make the Air Force more efficient and ultimately help save money, telling reporters IT “will not be that side gig for us anymore.”

Lessons learned from the pandemic can accelerate the Air Force’s Enterprise IT-as-a-Service (EITaaS) effort to bring commercial companies in to manage IT at more bases, as well as its “Bring Your Own Approved Device” effort to work from any mobile device, anywhere. Now that they are getting a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, leaders are identifying how certain aspects of telework can be improved and made permanent.

“We’ve got the ability now to continue to support [teleworking] that will drive some resource commitments that we’ll have to make down the road,” Hatcher said.

He declined to say how that might play out in the fiscal 2022 budget request that is now in the works, after EITaaS saw a $406 million bump in the fiscal 2021 request. Even with the funding challenges ahead, bolstering IT is among the highest priorities of Air Force leadership, Fay added.

Brig. Gen. Clinton Hinote, head of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, said the IT debate played out during deliberations over the fiscal 2021 budget last year. One possibility was a major IT upgrade initiative, which proponents felt was a step toward revamping the way the Air Force handles data.

“We began to change the investment portfolio and we made room for that. It was part of the redistribution of funds that we made from some of the things that we were asking to divest or do less of,” Hinote said. “I suspect … the momentum only builds from here on out.”

Equally important as technology is the culture that a good teleworking enterprise creates. Working from home means having to constantly split time between a job, taking care of family and pets, and managing a healthy work-life balance. The Air Force wants to build a culture that says it’s OK to stop working at 5 p.m., that it understands your kids need you, and not to worry if your cat hops into a teleconference.

“It gives us an opportunity to give some more autonomy to our people, to be a symbol of empowerment and trust, to help people balance their working lives with their personal lives, and mix those in a way that I think is attractive to a lot of the generation of people that we are trying to keep and stay in the Air Force,” Hinote said.

While the Air Force wants to attract new hires with modern technology and flexible work policies, it acknowledges it has a long way to go. As quality of service improves, so may recruitment and retention.

“We know that the expanded capacity that we have put into place is working, as the user demand is finally less than the capacity,” Raduege said. “Our continued focus, now that we have the capacity, is to focus on the quality of service for our teleworking Airmen.”

Some officials tout the prospect of only coming into an office when necessary. Others say the pandemic has made them appreciate workplace interactions even more.

“We have tried to find ways, on a personal level, to connect,” Raduege said. “My front office team has signed up for a virtual run, where once you complete the 50 miles logged, you get a medal. We’re working through a book together where everybody is reading in their own time, and then we’re going to try and have a book study at some point. … I absolutely miss being around my people.”