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Interview: Air University Commander Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast

January 25, 2016 (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Dennis Howk)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Alabama – As commander of Air University, Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast is charged with educating the Air Force’s most promising young airmen. That task is all the more daunting in the information age, where the military must keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Kwast wants to ensure the Air Force is on the leading edge of innovation when it comes to teaching the art of war to a new generation.

In an interview at Air University, Kwast told Defense News about his goals for the future of Air Force education, including the establishment of a Cyber College that is developing a new approach to cybersecurity.

What are your top priorities for Air University?

The first goal is that we evolve here at Air University so that we can use the information-age technologies that have become so prevalent in our society to educate more airmen more deeply. The second goal is to become a better think tank for the Air Force, because in the Washington, D.C., area it’s hard to have time to think — but we have time to think here. And the third is to evolve to be better at telling the Air Force story to America and to the world so that people understand the value of air power and they understand the purpose of air power.

You recently stood up a Cyber College. Is gaining a better understanding of cyber one of your initiatives?

It is. America as a society is struggling right now with how we live in an information-age world where we don’t compromise our privacy, our civil liberties or our independence. But the information-age world has actually brought the threat within. America in past centuries could defend the sovereign soil of America, the economy of America, and the government of America by fighting abroad, but cyber has actually brought the threats now amongst us. It’s in our power grids, it’s in our information systems, it’s in our financial systems, it’s in our transportation systems. How does a Department of Defense and how does an Air Force think about this problem such that we can provide the nation some options to defend our sovereign soil in light of these new tools of the world that can threaten us in ways we’ve never experienced before?

Often the Pentagon’s response to cyber attacks is seen as reactive, rather than proactive. Are you trying to change this?

Yes. Right now, you have to wait until you recognize there is a crisis and then you try to mitigate the crisis. We want to change the approach to allow you to see something different before it becomes a crisis and quickly assess: Is this a friend or a foe? Is this a problem? But it allows you then to actually act to shape events before they shape you, so it is a proactive approach to the problem of our cyber world.

How are you working with industry, particularly Silicon Valley, to drive innovation?

Very closely, and here is why: In this day and age, as we see the acceleration of inventions, the acceleration of innovation, and we see the tools of great potential power are being provided into the hands of individuals. What you see is that the leading edge of innovation is happening in civil society and in places all over the world and you can’t really predict where innovation is going to happen. So the need to collaborate very closely with civil society, with companies, with people who are innovating, for us as a military to keep our fingers on the pulse of who is doing clever and interesting things out there in the world, is essential. So this Cyber College is part of an effort to partner and collaborate with the rest of society like we never have before so that we can ride the leading edge of innovation out there and then bring it in to the national security business that we are held accountable to provide.

How do you deal with the military’s reputation of lagging behind industry in innovation?

Even though there may be this reputation that the military is always a little slower, the reality is that we are the best-protected nation in the world and we have a military that’s the best in the history of mankind. That is a testament to the fact that we don’t have to be the ones that invent the new technology, but when it’s invented we bring it onboard and use it to defend America. We are a bureaucracy like any other bureaucracy and when it’s big it tends to get lethargic, but the military needs to remind itself that there is the need for an accelerated journey to bringing new concepts and new technology to bear in an information-age world. We have always been up to that task throughout history.

How are you innovating the field of war-gaming here at AU’s Wargaming Institute?

It used to take quite a bit of time to develop a war game and then execute the war game and then digest the lessons that we learned from the war game. We are moving it to a footing where it’s much faster now because the world is much faster. So when our leadership in Washington, D.C., experiences a problem in the world and asks the question, “Hey, here’s a problem,” we can take that problem and those ideas and we can actually simulate them and model them and we can run through them quickly and say, “Here’s what would happen if you did this, here’s what would happen if you did that and here’s what it would cost you in money and resources and human capital.” We take this war-gaming muscle of thinking and we just do it more rapidly. So instead of having to spend a lot of money and a lot of time preparing, and then being very slow at giving advice to our national leaders, we can do it very quickly, but with the same analytic rigor and the same precision.

Global Strike Command recently asked you to host a nuclear war game. Can you tell me about this exercise?

The purpose of this war-gaming center is when our customers, the warfighters of the world, have a problem they want explored, they come to us and we can quickly give them some answers and give them some real facts and analysis and data behind the choices they can make. How do they want to reorganize? How do they want to structure? What operations do they need? What equipment do they need? What doctrine do they need? All of these questions that are part of the art of war are going to be explored more rapidly. That’s what General Rand and the Global Strike Command were able to achieve using the muscle of thinking here at Air University. We are trying to give the evidence and clear thinking in order to give the best military advice to our civilian leadership so that they can make policies that keep America safe

I’ve met many foreign officers here at AU. How essential is this presence to your mission?

It is essential because we as an American society recognize that as the world gets smaller with this information age, we can never go it alone. Having people from those cultures that have grown up and lived in those world paradigms contribute to these war games and this thinking is essential because, if you just take an American and you try to think through the deterrence and reassurance relationships, we will make the mistake of thinking that other people think like we do — and they just don’t. The only way you can know this for sure is when you have somebody you trust from that country who has grown up in that world paradigm be a part of the conversation. So it’s the best part of this university, having those foreign officers here.

How do recent budget constraints like sequestration influence your thinking here?

It reminds us that it’s not about the money, it is about the thinking, and that’s a very powerful point. Now, math does matter and money and resources do matter, but you could spend your entire national treasure on a bad strategy and get nothing done, and you could potentially spend only a small fraction of your budget on a brilliant strategy and win. So money is a factor but it’s not a dominant player. Strategic thinking is the dominant player. And so sequestration does not bother me — it would only bother me if we were not allowed to change our approach. One thing about human beings that’s funny is we tend to be blinded by old data, old assumptions and old ways of doing things. So if we take sequestration and we just say, well we’re just going to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, then we’re going to run out of money.

Have you tried to inject a culture of affordability to the teaching at AU?

Absolutely, because the art of war is all about money, like everything is about the economy. The journey of creating a comparative advantage over a potential adversary is to be able to do something that they can’t afford to react to. Yet right now we’re in a situation where we’re spending a lot of money and the adversary is spending less to take it away from us. So it is about money, it’s about being a good businessperson who says, “OK, I need to get to a place where I have a comparative advantage strategically and financially, and I can spend 10 cents and make you spend $10.” That is the strategic journey here, and so infusing that into the mindset of our people, that you have to follow the money and you have to be affordable, is the most powerful tool in a winning strategy.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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