USAF to Discuss Future Threats to Missions at November Summit

John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment, and energy, speaks during a mission overview briefing on military construction at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., Aug. 28, 2018. Air Force photo by Todd Maki.

Air Force cross-functional teams are pulling together holistic looks at the climate, cyber, and other threats facing USAF missions and will discuss them with senior leaders at a summit in mid-November, a top service official said Oct. 16.

The service is considering potential threats across the breadth of a mission, instead of taking a more typical base-by-base approach, John Henderson, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for installations, environment, and energy, said at a joint hearing of two House Armed Services subcommittees.

“They’re doing full threat assessments, for one, up to a very highly classified level,” Henderson said. “There is a large group of people working in a cross-functional way to address this holistically with the Air Force and we expect to bring this to our senior leaders here in about three weeks.”

Cross-functional teams are looking at weapon system security, command cyber readiness, supply chain protections, power grid stability, and more, he added. The Air Force has also hired a professor to design a curriculum that teaches civil engineers about industrial base vulnerabilities and cybersecurity, so the Air Force can make sure it is safely installing and operating new systems.

DOD similarly has not figured out the scope of its cybersecurity vulnerabilities, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon said, though the Pentagon is running supply chain initiatives, defensive cyber operations, and setting up new cybersecurity standards for its systems to address that issue.

“This isn’t just about cyber, just about weather, just about climate,” Henderson added. “This is the whole vast array of threats facing our installations that we have to look at.”

McMahon endorsed the idea of tackling ongoing problems, some of which have significantly ramped up in the last decade, together rather than thinking about them separately. He told lawmakers the Defense Department doesn’t adequately understand the potential cost of climate change effects, from strengthening storms to sea level rise, and is still figuring out the price tag of securing its digital enterprise, moving to 5G networks, and other aspects like its power grid and water supply.

“I’ve asked the services to come back with an assessment of what that looks like,” McMahon said. “What I can tell you is there’s $4 billion worth of damage at Tyndall Air Force Base, there’s roughly $4 billion of damage at [Naval Air Weapons Station] China Lake, so as you look at that and try to apply that across the enterprise, there’s a significant bill out there that I don’t think we fully understand or comprehend the full cost of, just on the facilities, let alone when we start talking about counter-[unmanned aerial systems], when we start talking about cyber, and the other elements, and we can throw [electromagnetic pulses] in there as well.”

Members of Congress have criticized the Pentagon for failing to provide enough information about how the climate could shape military operations and installations in the coming years.

Henderson noted that to combat permafrost thaw and shoreline erosion in Alaska and Greenland, the service is modifying building designs so facilities are still supported by the bedrock and installing pipes underground to keep the land frozen.

“We’re trying to find better predictive models that incorporate what is a better characterization of the changing climate and a number of other factors that’s affecting the shoreline erosion [at radar sites in northern Alaska] there so we can put together a mitigation strategy,” he said.

The Pentagon is also considering its future energy needs. McMahon said DOD recently held its first “energy wargame” with US Indo-Pacific Command focused on fuel for that theater and its related planning and operational shortfalls.

“Was it a baby step? The answer is yes,” he said. “The thought that energy is an integral part of our planning purposes and, more importantly, our tabletop exercises, we underscored that point, and we’re going to apply that in the next series of exercises that we do with the Joint Staff.”