Security Demands Challenge Air Force, Defense Contractor Collaboration With Academia

Deeper partnerships outside the traditional defense industrial base are needed to help the Air Force deliver cutting-edge technology to the warfighter, but relationships with academia can be challenging, according to panelists at AFA’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference.

Both the military services and the traditional defense contractors that serve them are going to have to learn to work with a much broader spectrum of partners if they are to “meet the requirements of the Air Force’s core missions in fulfilling the interim national security strategy … in a very challenging budgetary environment,” said Brig. Gen. Robert K. Lyman, the assistant deputy chief of staff for cyber effects operations, who moderated the conference’s closing session.

Partnerships with academia were among the issues at the forefront of panelists’ concerns, highlighted by the rare presence of an academic among them. Ed Vasko, director of Boise State University’s Institute of Pervasive Cybersecurity, offered a “shout out” to AFA members who had “pushed for Boise State to be here.”

“Academia really hadn’t been at the table” at previous Air, Space & Cyber events, Vasko said.

But there were challenges in working with academic institutions, the panelists acknowledged.

Steven Marker, the vice president for strategy and business development, cyber systems, at General Dynamics Mission Systems noted that his company signed master research agreements to collaborate with a number of universities. One issue that came up a lot, he said, was security: Would only graduate students who were U.S. citizens be allowed to work on projects with General Dynamics? And would the data from the project be specially segmented and protected on the university network?

“As part of our qualification of which universities we’re going to establish master research agreements with, this is one of the things we specifically addressed with them is their ability to bring on board U.S. citizen graduate students and their ability to segment the data,” said Marker.

Academic institutions that could not or would not meet the security requirements ended up being cut out of the GD ecosystem, he said.

“Honestly, there’s been universities where we’ve wanted to partner with them, because we see them as the world-class institution for [some particular technology] but they just can’t get over the hump of providing the type of graduate students that are needed to work it or guaranteeing the [data] protections [on their networks]. And so we’ll move to a different university,” Marker said.

The academic culture of universities tended to resist such security measures, said Vasko, although that was changing. “There’s been a degree of willingness to recognize the need to ensure that protection depending upon the specific partner or agency or funding source. That’s needed for protection of key intellectual data. And then the right to publish simply goes in the back seat,” he said.

The key to successful partnerships was being clear upfront about any expectations, explained Dan Rice, vice president of programs at Lockheed Martin.

In the company’s relationships with academic institutions, “we do ensure that through the terms and conditions, either formally or informally, that we get the ability to review the staff that’s going to be applied, that we have the ability to do security reviews on publications. Without restricting the desire of universities to publish research work, even if it’s funded by the government or by industry, to at least have that opportunity to review it and go through and provide feedback on things that should or shouldn’t be disclosed in the open press,” Rice said.

He suggested that academic institutions should employ the kind of insider threat detection tools made mandatory for Intelligence Community and DOD agencies following the June 2013 Snowden leaks and the Navy Yard shootings later that same summer. The tools track public information about employees, such as arrest warrants, debts, and any court records, as well as logging network activities on their work computer in a more timely manner than the traditional annual or five-yearly reviews.

“I think one other thing that industry and government can do is extending our insider threat practices to also evaluate the team members that we have on our university research activities. And I know this is something that Lockheed Martin does to ensure that when we see red flags, those get addressed, and we take the appropriate actions,” Rice said.

These broader partnerships are the key to unlocking the potential of new technologies for the warfighter, he added. “There’s no one source of innovation,” he told Air Force Magazine in an interview afterward.

Such partnerships had existed for decades but were changing, he said. “I think that they are becoming deeper. They’re becoming more enduring. They’re less transactional. It isn’t just about what technology can you give me today to solve my immediate problem, but it’s really about a strategic relationship.”

Those longer-term relationships could yield significant value, and industry members had become practiced at building them, said retired Air Force colonel and an AT&T executive vice president, Lance Spencer. “If you look under the hood of AT&T, you will see a lot of companies … We may have the AT&T globe and logo on it. And we’re the ones bringing it together. And we’re operationalizing it and scaling it and delivering it. But we have incubation environments where we’re working with startups. And we evaluate how they might grow and scale. And then we invest in those companies to solve problems like zero trust,” he said.

Although conventional wisdom painted a picture of the traditional military contractors as the consumers of innovation produced elsewhere, by startups or digital consumer giants, the reality was more complicated, Rice said.

“There are technology areas that we invest in because of the types of businesses we’re in that are also of great interest to the commercial industry,” he said. Niche technologies such as antennas capable of using many different parts of the spectrum—developed to operate in contested environments—could also be useful in congested ones. “Commercial industry is trying to optimize their use of spectrum,” he noted, so the capability of a single antenna to take advantage of different pieces of the spectrum is of “great interest” in the commercial sector.

Innovation, he said, “becomes a two way relationship.”