SAN DIEGO – Rear Admiral John W. Ailes is chief engineer (CHENG) for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR). His background includes ballistic missile defense, combat system development and multiple tours on cruisers and destroyers, specializing in combat systems. He has served as the executive officer of USS Lake Erie and as the first commanding officer for USS Chaffee.
His most recent leadership role was as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Mission Modules major program manager.
“In my last job, we developed mission packages and equipped ships that are now deployed,” Ailes said. “It’s very different from my new role as the systems engineer for all of SPAWAR’s systems and the Navy’s technical authority over cybersecurity and information technology.”
Despite the differences in running the LCS Mission Module Program to now serving as SPAWAR’s CHENG, Ailes has the right skills and outlook to move forward with the organization’s cyber warfighting and interoperability vision.
“SPAWAR has a central role as the Navy’s designated technical authority for information technology and cybersecurity,” he said. “Our team has the Navy’s premier expertise in how to defend a network against a cyber-attack and how to exchange data across networks. We work with other System Commands and the Program Executive Offices to provide them with the specifications and standards they can incorporate in the systems they build.”
On the topic of cybersecurity, Ailes believes it is critical to look across networks and enclaves from a holistic perspective and view them as adversaries do.
“This perspective enables us to prioritize our focus on the greatest risks currently facing the Navy enterprise. We can also use it to address cybersecurity upfront in the design of the new systems the Navy acquires, develops and installs,” he said. “However, it is not enough just to defend the networks against outside attack; we also need to monitor what is going on inside them.”
In some of the recent and highly publicized exploits of commercial networks, there was a huge exfiltration, or pushing out, of data.
“The key to preventing this is to watch network traffic to ensure large quantities of data cannot be transferred without anybody noticing. Continuous, network-wide monitoring is critical,” said Ailes. “You have to be watching for data exfiltration in all the places that have potential entry points for your adversary. We have the cyber defense expertise to address this issue at SPAWAR and we’re codifying it in specifications and standards that we are making available to all Navy programs.”
Ailes said achieving interoperability across systems that are procured as individual systems is key to his role as CHENG.
“As the engineering directorate in SPAWAR, we look across networks and systems to deliver a capability that is interoperable by design,” he said. "We achieve that goal through specifications and standards as well. One of the things that we’re doing is going through ships and airplanes, determining where the interfaces are, and then documenting them. We are very focused on getting systems to work together, since this is needed to complete a task or mission.”
Working the “system of systems” problem is central to ensuring the interoperability of systems the Navy is collectively fielding in order to provide capability to the warfighter. It is equally critical from a cybersecurity perspective. Developing and fielding systems in a stovepipe manner creates seams an adversary can exploit to access a system or network.
Ailes said there are concrete steps to take to make networks more secure, such as looking at what can be done to detect adversaries trying to enter networks and determining what actions we can be taken if a breech is detected, something he said is well understood in the world of command, control and computers and information.
”We live in that world all the time,” said Ailes. “SPAWAR has years of experience in securing networks and we’re now able to leverage that expertise across the larger Navy, especially as the threat expands beyond outward facing webservers, which have historically been the space where attacks occurred.”
With more than 30 years in the Navy, Ailes has travelled the world onboard many cruisers and destroyers. During his first tour at sea in USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) as a strike warfare/communications officer, he had the honor of meeting Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, a pioneer in early computer technology who helped develop the computer language known as COBOL.
Hopper asked Ailes and his team to identify how many computers were on the new Aegis cruiser.
“I told her we really didn’t know how many computers we had and that the answer would depend on where you draw the line. Is a wristwatch a computer? It has a computer in it. How far down do we go,” he said. “She told us it was important to know and, ironically, that’s what we’re doing today. We’re counting all the computers and seeing how they are wired together and what vulnerabilities they have. We are using this knowledge to engineer them to be more secure.”
A lot has changed since Ailes’ days as a young officer on the Bunker Hill. He has learned to stay ahead of the ever-evolving world of information technology. It is one of the biggest challenges faced by the information warfare community, along with balancing costs.
“Technology is moving very quickly. One of our challenges is to maintain the rigor that provides Sailors with a good training package and good logistics support, while also providing capability as fast as technology is going,” said Ailes. “In our overarching design process, we have to think about our plan to make a system that we can refresh with new technology. I would tell you that keeping pace and ensuring we provide the Sailor with the most capability that we can is certainly a challenge. It’s also part of the excitement of the engineering job.”
To help the Navy keep up with the rapid advancements in information technology, Ailes believes cloud computing will offer an advantage over the classic client-server infrastructure currently used. He sees the move to the cloud as a positive step toward increasing security for Navy computing, while at the same time decreasing costs. He believes the cloud architecture, with its service-oriented nature, is inherently scalable and simplifies security, due in part to the reduced attack surface and the ability to provide controls at appropriate points in the network.
“The cloud offers the promise of being able to add capability over time, without having to change the applications,” said Ailes. “Moreover, if everything is in the cloud, it can be protected in the cloud. We can provide layers of security and back-up data in multiple places that are physically dispersed. Our challenge is of course that in the Navy, we must also be able to operate while disconnected from the larger cloud, and we are wrestling with that now.”
As the Navy prepares for increased budget constraints, Ailes said it is important to think about how to ensure SPAWAR continues delivering robust capabilities while lowering costs. He points out that continually replacing obsolete systems to keep up with technological advances is expensive, which makes SPAWAR uniquely qualified to provide a holistic view across the Navy enterprise and design with refresh in mind from the start. It is also essential to drive cybersecurity and interoperability requirements into upfront design considerations. Ailes believes that cloud networking and continuing computing advances will help the Navy save money and keep systems secure and up to date.
“One of the challenges acquisition programs face today is that we do not yet have clear requirements for security and interoperability,” said Ailes. ”That’s why SPAWAR engineering is working hard to create technical standards that may be followed in both of these areas.”
Ailes reported to SPAWAR in August 2014 and immediately departed for the CAPSTONE Flag Officer Course, returning in October 2014. Since his return, he has had the opportunity to view first-hand the high caliber of engineers, staff and support personnel at SPAWAR.
“I am impressed with the professionalism of our workforce here at SPAWAR,” said Ailes. “We have an amazing group of people and I’m very pleased with the progress that we are making in delivering what we have promised. I’m also very impressed with the team’s drive to provide the best capability we can to the Sailor. There is a passion here in a team that is clearly focused on the fleet.”
As the Navy's Information Dominance systems command, SPAWAR designs, develops and deploys advanced communications and information capabilities. With more than 8,900 active duty military and civil service professionals located around the world and close to the fleet, SPAWAR is at the forefront of research, engineering, acquisition and support services that provide vital decision superiority to our forces at the right time and for the right cost.