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  • Q&A with Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast

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    Deadly Serious Business

    Kwast helps reinvent the Air Force

    October 2015
    By David Zaslawsky   
    Photography by Robert Fouts

    Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast is the president and commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.

    Montgomery Business Journal: I’ve read in interviews where you’ve talked about Air University helping to reinvent the Air Force. How does Air University accomplish that? Air University is the place where people come to think critically; to innovate rapidly; to think strategically. When you think critically and think strategically about the problems of our world, you start the process of bringing solutions to bear. Our world has changed foundationally since the Industrial Age and the need for adaptive thinking and creative thinking and critical thinking is the first step to bringing new solutions to a world that is different. That is at the core of reinventing the Air Force – thinking about the nature of the problems and thinking about solutions for those changes.

    How do you accomplish that with the students who come to Air University and maybe don’t think in those terms?  I would reject that. I would say that most people who are good thinkers think this way. The Air Force has great thinkers. When you see the Air Force out there and you travel around, you find that people are innovating at the tactical level. They’re innovating at the operational level. People know how to think critically. What we’re trying to do is develop a workforce that can think critically and strategically at a pace that keeps us ahead of the competition. It’s really taking it and injecting it with some energy and some adrenaline. It’s not that people are thinking poorly – it’s that we want to take them to the next level. Like a business, a business stays alive by being adaptive and relevant to the customer. Our job is to be adaptive and relevant to the president of the United States and the nation by providing air power solutions to the biggest problems of our day.

    What does tomorrow’s Air Force look like that you’re helping to reinvent? Tomorrow’s Air Force will look like an organization that provides options for our president and that those options are adaptive, where they can change depending on the geopolitical problem the president is trying to solve. It is flexible, where it can move from one objective to another objective quickly and affordably. That it is persistent, where it can endure for as long as the nation needs to project power in order to do whatever it is doing. And that it has the range and the speed to do it in the time that it needs to be done for a world that is accelerating in the need for speed.

    You’ve said that the country’s rivals are quick to adapt so that the military must be able to rapidly innovate or those rivals will be a step ahead of the U.S. That’s right. It’s like any living thing – if you do not adapt more rapidly than your competition – your competition will eat you for lunch. The same is true in combat … that team that can adapt and stay relevant more rapidly than their competition – that’s a tough thing.

    The consequences are so much more critical when you’re talking about national security versus a company that fails to adapt and goes out of business. A company can go out of business and nobody dies. If we do not stay adaptive and relevant for the nation the national security of America is at risk. The treasure and the blood is at risk – it’s something that is very sobering and why this is deadly serious business.

    You’ve talked about Air University becoming a think tank. What are the implications of that? Air University has always been a think tank. It is to remind us of that essential purpose of this place. For example, in the ’30s a group of airmen right here at Maxwell Air Force Base figured out how this new thing called the airplane could change the face of warfare. In the 1950s, you had a group of airmen right here at Maxwell Air Force Base that took this new thing called a nuclear weapon and figured out how that could be a force for peace and nuclear deterrents doctrine was born right here. In the 1970s, a group of airmen right here at Maxwell Air Force Base took this new thing called GPS and stealth and precision and they invented what we have today that has served America for 40 years – the ability to precisely track, target and hold at risk anything on the globe for our nation. This place has always been a think tank for our nation.

    I’m not sure if people perceive Air University as a think tank compared to think tanks for political parties to solve issues. The purpose of Air University is to make sure that airmen help our nation win its wars. When I say think tank, it is a place where people think about the nature of the problem and they provide options for strategic approaches that allow us to affordably defend this nation. That is the highest accolade you could have as a think tank – that you provide strategic thinking that provides options for our president.

    Problem solving. That’s right.

    Maybe problem solving to a higher level than what people are accustomed. That’s what you’re talking about – here’s a problem and how do we solve it. That’s right.

    You’ve said that you want “outside-of-the-box” ideas from students at Air University and what will you do with those ideas? I’ll use cyber as an example to answer this question. Anytime there is something new to humanity it takes human beings time to figure out what is going on. Often times, people are slow to adapt because they are stuck in intellectual ruts in the past – meaning that because I have hammered this nail with this hammer this way in the past it is going to work in the future and people get trapped. When I’m saying think outside-the-box I’m asking people to more rapidly innovate by letting go of the paradigms of the past and explore new ways of doing things and cyber is a perfect example. We haven’t even fully recognized how this information age world impacted us and we’ve become so dependent on cyber for our banking systems, financial systems, our power systems, our transportation systems, our information systems, so it affects our economy; it affects our government; it affects our national security. What we have to be good at is thinking outside-the-box and saying, ‘How do we solve this problem?’ Not necessarily with ships, tanks and planes as is the model of the Industrial Age, but maybe in new and creative ways that are not anchored by the paradigms of the past.

    In an interview with Defense News, you said that you are being tasked by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Walsh to have projects every year that are connected to the most urgent strategic problems. That sounds different from the past. It’s more of a reminder of our roots. This has always been the intent and purpose of Air University and Air University has always done this to some degree. This is about aligning that effort. That quote is about the fact that the world is coming apart around us. There are some really big problems happening – Putin misbehaving in Europe. ISIS creating chaos in the Middle East. China becoming aggressive in the South China Sea. These dilemmas that the world is experiencing are requiring us to harmonize our thinking so that we are really giving our leaders good, critical options for how we proceed. As our military is contributing to our president and Congress with tools of national power that extend policy and politics – those tools are truly solving the problems our president has. That’s really our job. Our job is to provide America (tools) as Congress and the president and our balance of power take a look at the world around us and the geopolitical environment – they want tools from the Department of Defense that are relevant for the world we’re in. This statement is nothing more than (saying), ‘OK, all the researchers and thinkers at Air University, we want your thinking to be harmonized towards these problems.’

    Are you saying more targeted than in the past? That’s right. Focusing them a little bit because it’s really fun to go solve this problem on how the saddle falls off the horse, and that’s a problem and there might be clever ways of solving that. You don’t want to be solving that problem when you have a problem that might be an existential threat to the national security of America. This is just focusing our efforts on the problems that are causing us the most risk as an American dream.

    You’ve talked about the importance of Air University ties with industry, academia, research centers as well as Army and Navy think tanks. What is the end product? The end product is an idea that has the blessing of diversity with regard to its design. This is about avoiding blind spots. This is about avoiding the group think that happens when you are only talking to yourself. Any advice we are giving, any option we are giving to the leadership of the Air Force, must be informed by the diversity of thought that truly makes us relevant. Diversity is a powerful game-changer with regard to innovation. If you don’t have it, you are giving solutions that sub-optimize its full potential.

    I’ve heard that you want to make Air University more accessible to the public. What does that look like? The community really owns the Air Force because it’s taxpayers’ money that pays for the Air Force. There are trusted partners in this community from university presidents and the different institutions of higher learning to the Chamber of Commerce to different leaders in the community. They are part of the fabric of this city and River Region. There is no reason why those trusted partners like the mayor can’t have a pass to be able to get on base and benefit from this place. There are lecture series that happen here, where we have an auditorium that has some extra capacity. Why not invite professors from the universities that are around this River Region to join us and benefit from the blessing of that conversation?

    This is the core of what I am talking about – that we more fully collaborate with civil society in this relationship, because the more America knows about its military, the more powerful America is in dealing with problems when the military has to act. We saw this fail in Vietnam because America was disconnected from the need for national defense and the sacrifice of those that serve. We had a whole generation of those that served America that came home and that were not embraced with the reality of what they did for the country.

    That can happen again if we don’t invest in this relationship, where people in the community are able to be a part of the (Air) University more fully. Another way we will do this is with our volunteer program. We have a Web page and when you go to Maxwell Air Force Base you’ll see the Web page for Air University. In the upper left-hand corner is: ‘I want to volunteer or I need a volunteer.’ People can go there and say, ‘I have a project for my church this Saturday and I need 10 people with shovels and a willingness to work.’ You’ll find 10 airmen showing up with shovels. The camaraderie; the communication; the conversations that take place …

    That really humanizes the airmen and Maxwell. That’s right, and bring people on base, where they said, ‘We need volunteers on base to do this project with our kids or our school on base is having this open house and we would like firefighters and police officers and educators to come on base and visit with our kids.’ That it’s easy for them to come on base and be a part of that because they’re trusted parts of our society. The only people we’re trying to keep out with those gates is when 9/11 hit. There can be a common-sense approach where the people of the River Region feel welcomed to the base and they are invited onto the base in a way that’s responsible and reasonable and there’s not this sensation that the wall separates us. We are one and we need to act that way.


    New School for the Information Age

    October 2015
    By David Zaslawsky

    Montgomery Business Journal: What will the cyber college look like in its inaugural year, which started in late summer? Kwast: It’s already beginning. Students are showing up (mid-July). The cyber college is as different from a brick-and-mortar school as cyber is from a horse on the battlefield. Cyber college is not a brick-and-mortar. It is not a curriculum and a set of textbooks and a professor with a group of students sitting in a room learning a certain syllabus and taking a test. The cyber college is taking all of the educational brilliance that is out there whether it’s the courses up at Air Force Institute of Technology at Dayton, Ohio, that is part of Air University already teaching cyber; whether it’s the enlisted troops down in Keesler Air Force Base that are learning cyber. It is taking all that content and it is knitting it together in a way where cyber education can come to every airmen at the right time in their career with the right content for that individual person. (It’s) letting go of the days of one-size-fits-all in education and moving to an arena where cyber college can knit together the educational requirements that you need as an individual person for the role you play as an airman. That (combination of requirements) contributes to the joint force and the inter-agency force and supports Space Command and 24th Air Force and Cyber Command with airmen that really have the knowledge that they need to be excellent in doing their job. That is the concept of the cyber college. It takes all of this content in the initial stages here and it knits it together and makes it appropriate for the individual.

    Do you have an example? The airmen that are coming here for Squadron Officer School. The captains will be partaking of this cyber college in doses and in content that is appropriate for a captain. The majors that are coming here for Air Command and Staff College will be part of the cyber college, giving them the content and the breadth and the depth of cyber they need. There will be people that are the Ph.D.s in cyber – the ones that are going to be our frontline warriors in cyber. They may get a Ph.D. from this cyber college or a master’s degree as they do research to contribute to the leading edge thinking and innovation of what we should do with regard to cyber. Air power and the five core missions of the Air Force must all be done in, through and with cyber just like they’re done in, through and with air and in, through and with base. That’s why this cyber college is different and doesn’t fit the model of a traditional college.

    What is the private sector’s role in the cyber college? Cyber is unusual in another way and that is, civil society will more than likely innovate more rapidly than anybody else with regard to cyber because our entire population on planet Earth has become dependent on cyber in very powerful ways:  economically, politically and socially. The fact that civil society will innovate more rapidly means that we need to have a relationship in the military with civil society to explore the nature of the problem with cyber so that we understand it and that we can be aware of the innovations that are taking place. This way, the military can stay on the leading edge of innovation as we bring cyber tools and techniques and strategies to bear for national security.

    You can apply the innovation from the civil society to the military. That’s right, but it’s not just the military benefitting from this relationship – it’s also civil society. Civil society gets to see the problem set that we’re facing. They get to understand the dilemma that we’re in in the military. This helps them go forward and innovate in ways that help us because this is really an American conversation and not just an air power conversation. This is an American conversation about how do Americans live in an information-age world such that we have security and safety to pursue happiness as our Constitution allows. The only way we’re going to do that as an American society is if we collaborate a little bit more fully with regard to cyber innovation so that the left hand is helping the right hand, and as Americans, we are moving forward and staying ahead of any potential people out there that would use cyber as a weapon against our freedom.

    What role will local universities such as Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama State University and Troy University play in the new cyber college? They are part of that civil society. Let’s say for example … the City of Montgomery and the State of Alabama put together a two-day cyber conversation about how we communicate with one another and how we think about some of our dependencies on cyber in the City of Montgomery and the State of Alabama. That event had the universities and their big thinkers in the room; it had law enforcement; it had the civil servants that are providing water and sewer and first responders. It had all the fabric of society in the room. What happens there is, as the academics from the higher-learning institutions in Alabama got to listen to this conversation, they take back to their researchers and their Ph.D.s – these are the people that really have these brilliant gifts of brains and thinking – that is a blessing to America. They take back this problem set they hear with regards to cyber and they start researching solutions and they start bringing solutions to civil society. When you take a look at the American journey of innovation you find that many of the innovations that bless us Americans right now come from professors at universities that are doing research to try to solve problems. The same is happening here and we are unleashing the brilliance of these minds that are right here in Alabama to solve these problems because they get to see the nature of the problem that is manifesting in the geopolitical environment and in the economy and in the society and the social fabric of America. That’s why they are so valuable and that’s the role they play. They are the lead thinkers.

    I know that cyber college is in its infancy stage, but what does success look like or what does the cyber college look like in five years? That is a very easy question to answer. I am going to measure how well the Air Force provides innovative solutions to the nation’s cyber problems such that we never get into a situation where we cannot protect our national security in the cyber domain. That air power can always act in, through and with cyber. If we achieve that – then we have done the proper thinking upfront. When you take a look at the entire spectrum of cyber education in the world right now, there is a gap; a piece that is not fully occupied right now, and that gap is at the strategic level in the operational design.

    Would you please elaborate? Most people, when there is a problem, they will rush tools and ideas to the solution. It’s a concept that is part of humanity that Einstein captured in his famous quote where he said: ‘If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the nature of the problem and five minutes acting.’ Most people – it’s human nature – will immediately scramble to try to throw this tool or that tool or that solution and after 55 minutes they realize none of their approaches worked because they haven’t really understood the nature of what was going on. If they had only spent the time thinking upfront, they could have acted with great efficiency and precision and a cause-and-effect would be immediate.

    This is what we’re doing in cyber and this is the gap, and this is really a core of the cyber college. We are going to get into the business here of not just thinking about tools because right now when somebody has a cyber event … you see these manifestations of this dependency on cyber that are concerning for America. What we find is people will (say), ‘Let’s try this app or let’s try to secure this network.’ Those activities are throwing solutions at a problem that we don’t even necessarily understand. People are good about thinking about the tools. People are good about even thinking about the missions. What people are sometimes poor at is thinking about the ideas. What is the nature of the problem and do you really have to solve it with this cyber tool? Maybe there’s another way. The cyber college will actually operate in the plane that is above technology so that we’re using ideas to think about how we’re going to approach this because the solution to cyber may not be a cyber solution. It may be a solution that prevents the adversary from using cyber as a weapon against us.

    You’re saying instead of a knee-jerk reaction to a problem, think about what the problem is. You’re stressing thinking throughout the interview – thinking critically and strategically. Exactly, because the purpose of this place is that every student that comes out of Air University is a person that goes back into the world; whether they’re going back into the world in Washington, D.C. or out on the frontline of the fight – that they are a critical thinker that knows how to ask the right questions and think about the dilemmas we have today. And is good at thinking at the idea level, so that their solutions are quicker in hindsight; they are more effective; and more efficient because we just don’t have the money to solve problems by just throwing money at them. Sequestration and the nature of our economies in the world being interdependent now – the days of America being so unilaterally dominant economically that we could solve problems just by out-producing and out-spending any potential adversary, is an anomaly of history. We better start thinking like immigrants again, where we’re hungry for every meal with regard to our solutions that need to be efficient and effective. This means getting back into the business of thinking about operational design first.


    Roby praises cyber security progress

    October 2015
    By David Zaslawsky
    Photography by Robert Fouts

    Montgomery is making tremendous progress in cyber security and U.S. Rep. Martha Roby said how impressed she was after a briefing at Maxwell Air Force Base.

    Roby, R-Montgomery, and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, learned about the College of Cyber Air Power, which is being launched this fall at Maxwell, as well as other areas of cyber security.

    Roby praised the “brilliant and talented individuals” in Montgomery and how they foster innovation. “I’m just blown away by the major steps and strides that are being taken by the brain trust that is right here,” Roby said about Maxwell and Gunter Annex. “I’m going to admit to you there are a lot of (things) that are over my head, but I am glad that somebody knows what they’re doing and to see these unbelievably intelligent folks that are pouring themselves into solving the problems that our military face on behalf on our nation.

    “This is so important and we are just on the cutting edge right here. It is really, really awesome to be a part of this. This is the future and I think most of you know that.”

    Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, who also attended the briefing, said that Montgomery was “not too far away from” connecting Maxwell, Gunter Annex, colleges and universities and the RSA Datacenter at the RSA Dexter Avenue Building.

    “When we make that plug connect, we can shout from the highest rooftops that not only were we first in civil rights; not only were we first in civil aviation; but we’re also first in cyber and nobody can touch us. And just think what that does to the paradigm of this River Region. We’ve got tons of opportunity for cyber as well as all the other high-tech companies that get started right out of Gunter.”

    Roby told Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, president and commander of Air University at Maxwell, that “we’re here to have your back – to ensure that our men and women have everything that they need when we send them into harm’s way, but harm’s way is now in a different realm with cyber activity. We recognize that we’re going to have to think outside the box on your behalf of how to ensure that we’re giving the military the tools that they need to achieve such greatness.

    “We want to ensure that the dollars are there; that the dollars continue to be there to ensure that Air University can continue to grow, and you see how exciting these new ideas are. I’m looking forward to seeing all the positive outcomes …”

    Kwast said the cyber college is not a traditional brick and mortar college. “This cyber college connects people together and beneficiaries will have access to education for the cyber workforce – on command; on demand; 24/7 anywhere in the world.”

    Strange said he expects to see additional hiring. He said the impact of offering the cyber curriculum means that high school students will become involved with cyber. “To the millennials and the younger generation to be able to be involved in this mysterious cyber situation, I think it’s going to change the paradigm of education in Montgomery,” he said.

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