Saturday, June 09, 2012

Whither United States Air Force Academy?

From TaoSecurity
Thomas Ricks' post Does the Air Force Academy have ‘the least educated faculty’ in the country? inspired me to write this post. Mr. Ricks cited a story by Jeff Dyche, a former USAFA professor who cited a litany of concerns with the USAFA experience. I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1994, ranked third in my class of 1024 cadets, and proceeded to complete a master's degree at Harvard in 1996. In my experience, at least in the early 1990s, USAFA faculty were as good, or better, than Harvard faculty. I considered the nature and volume of my graduate courses to be simple compared to my USAFA classes. When several fellow graduate students broke into tears after learning what the Harvard faculty expected of them, I couldn't believe how much easier the classes were going to be!

Rather than address points made by Ricks and Dyche, I prefer to focus on a theme that appears every few years: "why does the nation need service academies?" To provide one answer to this question, I'm going to draw on some lessons from a biography I'm reading called Grant by Jean Edward Smith. As you probably know, US Grant was a West Point graduate. According to Smith, during Grant's time as a cadet, West Point was one of only two schools in the nation that trained graduates as civil engineers. According to West Point in the Making of America,"

Following the example of the famous French engineering and artillery schools that the army had sent him to study, [Superintendent] Thayer made West Point America's national engineering school. West Point combined officer training with a highly technical undergraduate education...

Engineering itself became the army’s elite branch of service, the first choice by those who ranked highest in a graduating class. Lower-ranking cadets went to the cavalry, infantry, and other branches. West Point also became the nation's major source of civil engineers and of engineering educators. In the three decades before the Civil War, West Pointers as teachers, writers, and practitioners fostered science and engineering at Cornell, Harvard, Yale, and other colleges.

So, beyond just producing professional military officers, West Point met the country's exploding demand for civil engineers. As Smith says:

[A]s the nation moved westward, the demand for engineers grew steadily. For that reason, few of the young men who went to West Point did so with the intention of making the Army a career. It was no disgrace to resign from the service to take a better civilian position, and of the 1058 cadets who graduated from the academy between its inception in 1802 and 1839, only 395 remained on active duty.

I believe West Point's experience in the early 1800's could serve as an example for USAFA in this century. Few would advocate closing USAFA if it produced graduates with skills seldom found elsewhere, meeting another exploding demand. It seems to me that the skill most needed to help grow the nation is digital defense. This requirement takes many forms, including secure coding, infrastructure design/construction/operation, incident detection and response, forensics, threat intelligence and adversary characterization, malware analysis and reverse engineering, counter-threat operations, and related fields. With the proper leadership, faculty, and determination, USAFA could differentiate itself as the nation's premiere "cyber school," with an integrated curriculum focusing on securing cyberspace -- both in the military and government or private sectors.

This change doesn't require shifting all Academy resources to the cyber mission, but I would admit far greater numbers of cyber-affiliated candidates and radically beef up the Academy's cyber program. There is a precedent: in 1990 when I was admitted, I was one of the approximately 150 freshmen (out of about 1,500 total freshmen) who lacked 20/20 vision. 90% of my class was "pilot qualified" because the demand for pilot training was projected to be high by 1994.

If USAFA became known as "the" school for cyber, accepting that not all graduates intend to serve a twenty year Air Force career, I doubt the school would suffer so many questions of relevance and cost.


Anonymous said...

USAFA won the 2012 Cyber Defense Excercise and got second place at the National CCDC. They aren't doing too shabby.

ChuckAtPodunkOutpost said...

Normally I am right there with you, but I am not convinced that USAFA is the logical place for a cyber school.

I don't think I am alone in expecting that the tradeoff for funding the military academies is that we produce career officers for the respective service. I am aware that "up or out" grade advancement requirements prevent some officers from completing a career enbarked upon when entering an academy.

The principal reason to have multiple service acadamies is to allow for tailoring the curriculum for the core competencies that support the mission of that service. If we accept the (admittedly simplistic) view of the Army fights on the ground, the Navy fights at sea, and the Air Force rules the air, I would be more inclined to find justification of having West Point be the cyber school, not the Air Force Academy.

But I also question the military being the appropriate venue for such a school. Given the need for such capabilities in the private sector as well as government and military environments, it would seem to make more sense to create such a school where all three "factions" could have access.

With the level of scrutiny of government expendiures, mission creep does not seem to me like the best way to justify what is spent on any of the academies.

Anonymous said...