Retired Gen. William Bender, who was Air Force CIO from 2014 until 2017, said on Thursday that while the pace of IT modernization across the services may be somewhat uneven, the military is making progress toward its modernization goals.

Speaking at an event organized by the Air Force Association, Bender said the government is still years–“you pick the number”–behind some private sector organizations in network modernization, but added, “progress is being made…in the right direction.”

While modernization efforts are proceeding across all of branches of the military, “all of the services are in different places,” he said, and what constitutes progress “is being defined by the customer.” The overall modernization effort, he said, “is big and complex…and hard to do.”

The Defense Information Systems Agency, he said, “may be a little bit behind, but that’s because of the complexity” of its tasks. “It’s an evolutionary business,” he said.

Bender, who is now a senior vice president at Leidos, said the Air Force has been “doing a lot of work on software-defined networks, and network virtualization,” and is “progressing along the path to network modernization.”

Asked about the advent of “zero trust” security models, Bender said the first mission is to “make sure your data is protected and secured…It is the only asset that you own.”

“You need full understanding of data end to end, and full trust,” he said, adding, “Then you can have that conversation about AI [artificial intelligence] and how to do that.

Retired Air Force Gen. Greg Feest said at the same even that the Air Force “does networking well today, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

He pointed to future concerns about maintaining critical data flows, and said that the Air Force has long enjoyed “unrestricted flow of data,” but increasingly so do U.S. adversaries. Retired Col. Lance Spencer, now director for Air Force strategy and solutions at AT&T, said the advent of 5G wireless services will make it more difficult to deny access to data because of the higher density of 5G network infrastructure.

Derek Strausbaugh, a principal program manager at Microsoft, noted large investments by the Chinese government and industry in 5G technologies aimed at data and AI technologies. “It’s all about delivery of AI insight…If you want to be a superpower,” he said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.