Air Force's top computer warfare expert compared his service's internet efforts to being the Patriots at halftime of last Sunday's Super Bowl.

The other team has been running up the score, said Lt. Gen. Bill Bender, the Air Force's chief information officer. He's so busy "putting out fires" that it's hard to make sufficient changes to meet the challenge.

Russia in the past two years has showed off its cyber skills in Ukraine and is also suspected of an attempt to tip America's electoral scales by hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing embarrassing emails.

For the past decade, China and North Korea have also demonstrated powerful cyber capabilities. China may be best known for its industrial espionage and North Korea has hit targets ranging from Sony Pictures to South Korean banks.

Meanwhile, Bender found himself addressing email problems at bases in Texas and Illinois.

"What are we going to do to fight today's adversaries when we're busy fighting fires?" Bender said, during a speech at the three-day Rocky Mountain Cyber Symposium at The Broadmoor.

Bender said by getting the Air Force to focus on a game plan, he can pull off a come-from-behind victory as the Patriots did. But he'll need a lot of brainpower.

The symposium, sponsored by the local chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, brought together 2,200 computer experts, including nearly 1,000 from the government and the military.

The military types at the symposium are hoping the corporate world can help them solve their computer issues. Now, the Air Force is spending most of its time and information technology budget on computer basics - making sure the email system works and the phones ring when called.

Bender said those basic "legacy" systems suck up about 70 percent of Air Force computer spending. Since 2016, though, the service has looked to commercial firms to bear that load.

Technology companies are expert in running networks and cloud computing that could make the day-to-day computer operations of the Air Force run more smoothly.

The Air Force's brass says money saved by outsourcing and the airmen who would be freed from mundane tasks can be refocused on computer warfare.

"We have to aggressively get after outsourcing," said Maj. Gen. Dave Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, which includes the service's computer warfare arm.

But getting a rapid injection of contractor knowhow is easier in North Korea. While dictatorships do whatever the boss says, the U.S. Military must wade through thousands of pages of acquisition regulations, define requirements, assess bids and aggressively test the solution before it's adopted.

Bender said he's working to speed up how fast the Air Force can react to its needs. Changes have included the establishment of a testing facility in San Antonio, Texas to rapidly test ideas.

The Air Force wants to change its people, too.

Thompson's command at Peterson Air Force Base is reorganizing how the Air Force approaches cyberspace, starting with Schriever Air Force Base, where a new cyber squadron is being built to defend the nation's military satellites from hacking. In the next five years, every Air Force wing will include a similar unit to defend its assets and to use its own cyber capabilities to enhance attacks.

But building all those new units means the service will have to shift priorities away from old-fashioned computing.

Bender said the Air Force can reach its goals with innovative solutions, including the Pentagon's $400 million move to build a single network for all the armed services to share.

A key to using the new cyber war forces will be figuring out how to sift through all the data the Air Force is generating. From desktop computers to spy satellites, the Air Force is generating an estimated 2.5 quintillion bits of data a day - a bit is a zero or a 1, and a quintillion is a 1 followed by 18 zeros.

Buried within all that data are the answers commanders need to be more effective on the battlefield.

"We are not prepared to handle the scale of data that exists today," Thompson said.

A revolution in computing - machines that can learn and assist in decision making - could be the answer. But he also wants better training for his cyber troops and a quick-thinking innovative culture in the Air Force that can exploit opportunities.

Bender said keeping America safe means embracing new approaches to cyberspace.

"We're now a digital Air Force whether we like it or not, and we're living in a digital world," he said.

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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