Q&A with Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson

Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson has a fancy title: Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer. But he calls himself the “tech guy on the operations team.” Peterson is the guy who talks about bits and bytes, cyber security, radars and satellites. He also is the one who keeps tabs on all the Air Force’s assets and how they can best be used to be effective in the fight. Peterson manages a more than $17 billion portfolio for communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

Q: What are some of the biggest concerns of your job?

The biggest concern is that we can’t go to war without the Internet. That is how we travel, that is how we move, that is how we are re-supplied, that is how we reach out and get help from vendors and the industry. The Internet is unclassified, literally unprotected. We can add our classified networks directly to the Internet and there is some degree of protection, but that is not good enough. So what keeps me up at night is having a potential adversary deny us the use of that network to make it much more difficult for us to go to war.

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Q: Are cyber attacks getting more sophisticated? How is the Air Force staying ahead of those threats?

We get probed hundreds of thousands of times. “Probed” means that someone is coming in and finding out what protocols are available to come into the system. Tens of thousands [of probes] are looking for chinks in the firewall so that they can exploit a vulnerability. When we have not configured systems properly, probes sometimes work because we have not closed all of the ports. Or they come inside the network through a port we want them to use, but then they have attacked a piece of equipment inside the network and that opens up other vulnerabilities.

The problem remains that this moves along so quickly, and as vulnerabilities are found immediately we want to go and patch them. Eighteen months ago it took 57 days to patch computers because it was all manual. You had to go out and touch every single machine. Today, because we have put standard configurations in place and you can do it remotely, we can do it in a day and a half. The goal is going to be minutes.

Q: How do you stay a step ahead with the technology and hacking methods always evolving?

As soon as a new version of software, as soon as a new version of a chip is delivered to us, we have teams that are working with the national computer emergency teams to do analysis and find vulnerabilities. We immediately go to work if we find vulnerabilities.

Q: Has the headquarters for the new Cyber Command been chosen yet? The new command received a lot of congressional attention as several districts and states expressed interest in housing the new endeavor.

No, and we will not be able to do that soon. Very aggressively, we thought we could. I did not know how complex it was to find the right location to stand up a new mission. [About 18 states showed interest in housing the command.] We asked governors for their input and they are coming back now. We will narrow down the decision to a few places before Christmas. Then some really hard work goes in. We will send our engineers out to do the environmental impact work. Probably in summer of 2009 we would be able to tell people where it is going to be.

Q: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has talked so much about strengthening the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability and created a task force. What are the Air Force’s priorities as part of that task force? Any new ideas or capabilities?

Our priorities are Secretary Gates’s priorities. What we did is we took an end-to-end look at what we could provide and what we can deliver in terms of ISR. The highlight of that is the importance of full-motion video to the ground force. Today most of that is done with the Predator [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)]. Global Hawk [UAV] has still images, but we also moved on with a few aircraft called Reaper [UAV], which is the follow-on generation to the Predator.

We did the experimentation for reach-back through satellite and fiber optic networks, so today the bulk of our Predators are flown from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The crews are there. They do not deploy forward and that way they can be in the fight 365 days a year. That allowed us to put 88 percent of our Predators forward [into theaters of war]. The other 12 percent are training new crews and doing test and evaluation for new capabilities. By December, we will have 31 [Predator] orbits. That means 24/7, 365 days there is a Predator on board supporting you in 31 separate locations in the theater. Our stated objective is to have 50 orbits available. We will need them to be Reaper, principally because they can carry more payload for ISR.

Q: Do you still think there should be an executive agency for unmanned vehicles?

That question got answered, and the deputy secretary of Defense does not think we need an executive agent. He is insistent that we work closely together to develop those common technical standards. That is our intent and that is what we are going to push towards.

Q: The whole issue with the nuclear parts mishaps — what do you think happened there, and what do you think could strengthen the information sharing about assets and how they are being employed?

[The secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force were forced to resign over two flaps involving nuclear parts. Last August, a B-52 bomber flew from North Dakota to Louisiana with nuclear weapons and earlier this year, the Pentagon discovered that four nuclear warhead fuses were accidentally shipped to Taiwan in 2006.]

We have some important work to do on our legacy logistics system. Any time a person is in the loop, there is the potential of typing something incorrectly. So in my lane we have been working with the logistics personnel so that we have the best tools available and that we modernize those systems. That would be an absolute priority on my part.