Jun 16 2008

If USAF can’t get a high-level policy directive right…

Part 1: my mentor warned me about "any policy that survived a consensus and was pencil­whipped by a committee"
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I recently took a quick glance at Air Force Policy Directive 13-3 signed by the now-fired Secretary Michael Wynne. Then I did a double-take. And then I took a long, hard look at it.

This important product lays out some bureaucratic groundwork for USAF’s new cyberspace mission. These documents usually exhibit a banal quality and this one proves no exception … but AFPD 13-3 concerns me for a very important reason. In a word: “grammar.”

It’s a bad sign when you find multiple grammar errors in a short document with overarching policy certified by a three-star general and signed by the Secretary of the Air Force.

It’s a bad sign when you find mul­tiple grammar errors in an over­arching policy docu­ment certi­fied by a three-star general and signed by the Secre­tary of the Air Force.

Of lesser note, I noticed the inconsistent use of a comma to separate the final item in a series (e.g. “strategic, operational, and tactical” in paragraph 1.1 vs. paragraph 1.2). I found the incorrect use of “which” instead of “that” (e.g. paragraphs 2 and 4.1.1). I noticed an overly passive voice in all paragraphs 4.x. And let’s not overlook the inconsistent second sentence in each subparagraph under 4.1.

These all qualify as lesser grammatical problems—

—but history warns us to distrust any bureaucratic policy that suffers from multiple noun-verb disagreements. AFPD 13-3 includes an obvious “the I-NOSCs directs” in paragraph 3.3; an obvious “for each AFNetOps organizations” in paragraph 4.1; and a subtle plural/singular discord between the first two sentences in paragraph 4.1.3.

Then there’s the problem of the “interchangeable” abbreviations “AFNet” and “AF-GIG.” For such a short document, you’d think the Secretary of the Air Force could at least pick one abbreviation and use it consistently. But, no.

My first Air Force mentor, the late Jay Gowens, summed it up best circa 1983 when he revealed how he tackled the problems our office faced deep inside NATO. “Memorize any policy that serves a mandate and was written by a craftsman. Forget any policy that survived a consensus and was pencilwhipped by a committee.” (Not a verbatim quote but it’s accurate in spirit.) I believe Gowens would forget he ever saw AFPD 13-3.

“Waitaminit, Rob! How can you complain about the use of commas when you refuse to follow correct grammar to use one after ‘e.g.‘ in the fourth paragraph?” You ask a very valid question. The answer is: I don’t write overarching policy for the U.S. military. I’m just one critic with an established personal writing style — and I’m widely regarded as a craftsman who follows a mandate to save a pompous computer security industrial complex from its own incompetence.


This policy directive hints at a subtle-yet-fundamental problem in the race between the U.S. military services to codify a DoD-centric cyberspace mission. I describe this problem as a “hot project syndrome.” Let’s talk about the notion of a hot project so you can see the problem for what it is.

I’ve said it before (in so many words). USAF needs a new docu­ment called Fifty Cyber­space Questions Every Airman Can Answer.

The F-117 stealth fighter grew out of a very hot project in its day. It attracted the best design engineers, the best Air Force maintenance crews, and of course the best pilots. It attracted the best logistics officers, the best avionics technicians, and the best administrative personnel. If you flew the F-117 in its “black” phase, or worked on it, or supported it, then you were one of the elite. You belonged to a very hot project.

Likewise, the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft grew out of a very hot project in its day. It attracted the best design engineers, the best Air Force maintenance crews, and of course … well, you get the hint. If you flew the SR-71 in its “black” phase, or worked on it, or supported it, then you were one of the elite. You belonged to a very hot project.

The Air Force “cyberspace” mission has grown (devolved?) from a hot project that has attracted the best career-minded officers, the best on-verge-of-retirement senior NCOs, and of course the best entrenched civilians. That’s the real problem.

When it comes to things like the F-117 and SR-71, bureaucrats end up serving the needs of the hot project. But when it comes to cyberspace, the hot project ends up serving the needs of the bureaucrats. That’s the real problem.

Great military doctrines and policies evolve from a focused single vision, not a muddled groupthink consensus. The grammar in AFPD 13-3 tells us too many people inserted themselves into the writing & approval chains and then exercised their right to pencilwhip it into consensus. So, if the Secretary of the Air Force can’t get a high-level policy document right…

Listen to me, folks. USAF has no focused single vision for cyberspace — only a bunch of poorly mouthed self-promoting videos. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out their muddled vision in a different core mission area when he explained his reasons for firing his top two leaders. Let’s modify Gates’ quote from “nuclear” to “cyber” and see if it doesn’t ring a bell:

“The Air Force does not have a clear, dedi­cated autho­rity respon­sible for the nuclearcyber enter­prise who sets and main­tains rigorous stan­dards of operations.”

USAF has failed for fully twenty years to solve their virus woes despite throwing (by my guess) upwards of $100 million at that single problem. If they ever had a clear, dedicated authority with responsibility over cyberspace, he/she would have long ago recognized USAF’s real virus problem — and his/her focused single vision would have reverberated throughout the Pentagon by now.

If USAF ever had a clear, dedi­cated autho­rity with respon­si­bility over cyber­space, he/she would have long ago recog­nized USAF’s real virus problem.

USAF’s muddled groupthink has turned a “hot project” into a cancerous quest for an Einstein-ish unification theory that homogenizes Military Intelligence with Communications under a single major command. But hey, that’s what you get when consensus steers the Air Force in some new direction.

And it’s a nail in the coffin every time a pencilwhipping committee leave multiple grammar errors in an overarching Air Force policy document. (Did you catch the noun-verb disagreement?)


Groupthink encourages its participants to assert themselves outside the group structure. They’ll preface their opinions with phrases like:

  • “I’m deeply involved with the standup of Headquarters Cyberspace Command, and I believe we should…”
  • “I was picked by the Chief of Staff to be a founding member of the Air Force Cyberspace Task Force, and it’s obvious that…”
  • (my favorite) “I have an SCI clearance and it pains me to say ‘I know a secret,’ but you just aren’t fully aware of…”

I’ve been amazed consistently since 1996 at blue suiters who brag about their intimate familiarity with cyberspace doctrine & policy — yet who stare at you like a deer in the headlights when you ask them something as simple as “what is the title of Air Force Doctrine Document 2-5?” You can safely ignore any flyboy who doesn’t know the two words splattered on the cover of USAF’s Cyber Bible.

“Okay Rob, you’ve babbled long enough about the past & present. Time for you to predict the future.” Cyberspace Command loves to brag about their itchy trigger finger. Read up on the root causes for the Bay of Pigs debacle. Then imagine Barney Fife with a loaded gun — twice.

Okay, now it’s time for you to do me a favor: print a copy of this column and mail it to USAF’s newly selected Chief of Staff. Defense Secretary Gates told him right to his face that “none of the services easily accept honest criticism from outside their branch, or scrutiny that exposes institutional shortcomings. This is something that must change across the military.” That change can begin with this column. Be anonymous if you must, but mail it to the new USAF Chief of Staff. Tell him “USAF needs a focused single vision for cyberspace.”

(For the record: I do not have a focused single vision for cyberspace. I’m just a critic who realizes USAF needs such a person. And it’s not Major General William T. Lord.)

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