Forrest Durham's 45 Years Trailblazing Air Force Technology
by U.S. Air Force CPT Nadine Wiley De Moura
January 6, 2022
There can be no doubt that within the last 45 years information warfare has undergone a complete transformation accompanied by the ever changing digital world. Cyberspace has become another domain for warfare and poses serious threats to national defense interests.
Mr.Forrest Durham has been an integral part of trailblazing the U.S. Air Force technology pace and advantage over our adversaries throughout his 45 years of government service.
Throughout his career, Mr. Durham has dedicated 10 years of enlisted service, 10 years of service as a commissioned officer, four years as a DoD contractor and 21 years as a U.S. Air Force civil servant instilling his technical expertise in the U.S. Air Force cyber and network operations community.
Most recently, Mr.Durham has served as Deputy Director for Network Operations with the 688th Cyberspace Wing A/5/8/9 and Technical Director for the 690th Cyberspace Operations Group applying his technical experience and acting as a subject matter expert in computer engineering, network operations and program management.
Forrest Durham, Deputy Director for Network Operations with the 688th Cyberspace Wing A/5/8/9 and Technical Director for the 690th Cyberspace Operations Group stands in front of a RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft on December 21, 2021 at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. During his enlisted time as an Airborne Voice Processing specialist-Russian linguist he flew Peacetime Aerial Recon missions on RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by CPT Nadine Wiley De Moura)
During his tenure he has witnessed the transformation of information warfare from hand-building some of the first PCs as a hobby, to analyzing communications in the Russian language from inside of aircraft, to defending the DODIN and facilitating user experience to support USAF core missions.
By way of the path that Mr. Durham charted and his remarkable contributions, those that follow may gain insight into the evolution of the U.S. Air Force and his profound commitment and dedication to defending the nation.
Born in Indianapolis, Ind., Mr. Durham attended George Washington High School and graduated in 1975. After three semesters of General Business at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis he realized he was going to need more finances to finish his degree. Having a father who served in World War Il and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, an Uncle who fought in the Korean War and a brother in the Air Force, he decided to join the Air Force for more opportunities.
In 1977, 19-year-old Durham enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as an Airborne Voice Processing specialist-Russian linguist. After finishing tech school in Monterey, Calif. at the Defense Language Institute for basic Russian and Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas for more Russian courses he was assigned to his first duty station in Okinawa, Japan in 1978. There he flew Peacetime Aerial Recon missions on RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft.
Following this assignment, in 1981 he was assigned to Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. where he worked on the EC-103H Compass Call. He recalls getting the opportunity to attend water survival school with the first Space Shuttle astronaut candidates including Sally Ride and Judy Resnik, among others.
All of these missions can be linked back to the lineage of the current command that he still works under today.
As a result of his skill, work ethic and intellect during his enlisted service, was selected for the Airman Education and Commissioning Program. This provided him with the opportunity to work and receive staff sergeant pay while achieving his Bachelors of Science in electrical engineering at the University of Arizona.
He married his wife Jo in 1987 and commissioned as a second lieutenant that same year.
He attended Office Candidate School at the Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and commissioned as a Research and Development Engineer.
His first assignment as an officer was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he was assigned as the Air Force Logistics Command /Systems Center headquarters program manager of the Model Network Control Center for Air Force Logistic Command data centers.
Forrest Durham as a first lieutenant at the Air Force Logistics Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on undisclosed date. (Photo courtesy of Forrest Durham)
In 1992, after completing a masters degree in systems acquisition at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) as a Captain, he became a project manager for the LANTIRN system, where he led the acquisition, modification and fielding for a $24 million information system for collecting, and analyzing LANTIRN avionics maintenance and failure data. This mission directly supported the targeting and navigation pods for F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft.
His follow-on duty station was at Maxwell Air Force Base- Gunter Annex, Ala. From 1995 through 1997 he was the assigned as the Standard Systems Center program manager for the Integrated Computer Automated Systems Engineering contract where he retired after 20 years of military service in 1997.
Following his retirement, Durham worked as a contractor for the Dynamics Research Corp as Director for their Montgomery, Ala. Area and Task Lead for the Support Agreement Management System until 2001.
He transitioned to the Air Force civil service in 2001 where he took on numerous responsibilities at the Gunter Annex as a Computer Engineer to include the Cargo Movement Operations System, the Vulnerability Lifecycle Management System, the Air Force Enterprise Configuration Management Office, the initial version of the Standard Desktop Configuration and then Chief Engineer of Enterprise Services.
During this time he completed his Master of Science in Computer and Information Sciences at Troy State University.
In 2010, he moved to San Antonio to take over his current role within the 688th Cyberspace Wing headquartered at Lackland Air Force base. At the time the 690th COG was then called the 690th Network Support Group and originally fell under the 67th Cyberspace Wing.
He recalls some of the highlights of this role were providing continuity to seven Group commanders, and the numerous achievements with each to include: Col. Curt Locke (started AFNet Migration), Col. Michelle Hayworth (finished AFNet Migration), Col. Chad Radlege (IAFNOS, AMAC) Col. Heather Blackwell (APPL/SCITL, Cyber Mission Crews), Col. Greg Davis (a quick stint before being chosen to be AMC/A6), Col. Kevin Kirsch (End User Experience, VPN Access during COVID, TEAMS) and Col. Billy Pope (Wing Optimization Transformation, A2/3, Centers of Excellence).
Durham was an integral part of AFNet Migration (NIPR), CSCS System Concept (SYSCON), Manpower Assessment, EITSM, ARAD, ACAS, HBSS, SCCM, Comply-to-Connect (C2C), IAFNOS (Manning Network Operations), IAFNOS-2, POM and Budget battles, CSCS Weapon System Requirements, APC Operations, Transformation Activities: EITaaS, SIPR Modernization; AFPEDC; Zero Trust and the Wing Transformation.
Every step of the way Durham proved to be a core contributor to improving and casting the mold of U.S. Air Force network operations to what they are today.
As he approaches retirement in January of 2022, the 688th Cyberspace Wing wanted to take the opportunity to capture and share some of his wisdom, ties to 688th Cyberspace Wing and U.S. Air Force history in an exit interview before culminates his U.S. Air Force civil service career.
Whether you are enlisted, officer, civil service member or any type of leader in your field’s story inspires and captures a snapshot in Cyberspace history--through his unique lens.
Q: What is your role as a U.S. Air Force Technical Director?
A: I act in a role that brings continuity. A commander comes in for two years and then I get another one. I look at it like sailing a ship. I have an understanding of the technical direction that the AF intends or needs for cyber and a component of the vector the commander tracks will also accomplish part of the technical direction. While I fully support the commander’s initiatives, I also make sure we make progress towards the technical vision which includes things such as a single face to the user, no duplicate entry, optimal automation and the consolidation and evolution of tools and capabilities. The point is the technical way ahead is ever-evolving and can’t be accomplished in just two years. There may be a whole lot of other objectives that arise, and I support them, but I try to make sure we make progress towards a technical environment that supports mission accomplishment. In general, I’m looking after what I call user and operator equities, at least as I understanding them. For example, we have several efforts going on right now such as EITaaS, SIPR ISN, Zero Trust and basic cyber security and defense under the umbrella of the AFIN SOC. The vision as I see it is an integrated operational environment that allows you to have holistic control over all of the AFIN. I participate in all of those conversations and I keep singing the same song to ensure we will be able to operate today, operate where we are going and operate on the way there.
Q: Would 19-year old Mr. Durham be surprised with how far your career has gone?
A: I’ve been super surprised every step of the way. I went in as Open General with vague hopes of becoming a Computer Programmer and got Voice Processing Specialist-Russian linguist instead. After that, I just followed the opportunities as they availed themselves. It’s all worked out well. I had no idea that computers were going to be as big as they are in their role of businesses and warfighting operations. I just kept following my nose and opportunities kept arising.
Q: To meet those opportunities you had to have some work ethic, drive and intellectual ability to carry this career forward and endure. What inspired you?
A: I can claim I worked hard throughout my life. My Mom and Dad owned two apartment houses that we rented out and fixed up and I was always taking care of those. I also did a lot of drafting in grade school and high school. My shop teacher instilled quality and a lot of life skills. Between him and my father scrutinizing the quality of production, quality has been a common thread throughout. Also, I’ve always liked to analyze things and processes.
After a lot of schooling on my own, the AF invested in me to get my electrical engineering degree and I appreciated that. I felt like I owed them. Also, when I retired from the AF I recognized how much the AF had invested a lot in me. In this country there aren’t many people that understand AF acquisition systems and the processes, so I decided to continue on the path where I thought I could make the greatest contribution. When I realized that my career had indeed become focused on computers, and it seemed everything was going in that direction, I got another masters, this time in Computer Science.
My wife and I married when I was at Davis Monthan 35 years ago. You ask how I do it all—Jo made it possible for me to study and get things done. From the very beginning and all along the way she has been very supportive.
Q: You’ve played an integral role in the evolution of where the cyber and network operations have gone. How does it feel to have a hand in all of that?
A: The significant event for me was when I was at Davis Monthan and Compass Call was new. We were acting as subject matter experts helping to define system requirements and working with the program managers that were developing the crew department for Compass Call. I never knew about program managers or the delivery of warfighting capabilities and I thought that was cool and would be a great thing to do for a career. Since then, my career has progressed from being a developer delivering capabilities to various kinds of warfighters to my current job where I am more directly involved with operations. I guess that’s the part I would have never dreamed of. So, looking back, it is kind of obvious, Davis Monthan was the kick off point for me: coming to the realization that delivering system capabilities would a great career path and going to school at night, getting selected for AECP and getting my electrical engineering degree from the University of Arizona. That’s what eventually landed me here.
Q: What was the highlight of your enlisted career?
A: Becoming a Russian linguist was quite challenging so there is much I could share. As I said, the highlight was at Davis Monthan with Compass Call when I got selected for AECP to get my electric engineering degree and a commission. The rest of my career flowed after that. Also, the comradery was a highlight. I am still friends with some of the Russian linguists I worked with. Generally, linguists are very intelligent people. It is hard to make it through that school and the airborne voice processing specialist job itself is not an easy one. Another interesting highlight was that I went through water survival training with the first space shuttle astronaut candidates including Sally Ride and Judy Resnik. The space shuttle had not flown yet and they were going through water survival training just like I was. Looking back it was pretty neat. There were boats with T.V. cameras out in the ocean as we were going out to do our parasailing. I also went through land survival, and interrogation training. That was pretty cool.
Q: What conflict was going on when you first began your military service?
A: The Cold War in full swing as an ongoing stale mate with the Soviet Union. We were flying against the Soviet Union collecting peacetime reconnaissance information. It was real Air Force stuff. You would get up at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, get your briefing, get on the plane and get in position on time—or else. We would fly for 12 hours, refuel, recover and analyze information. It was a cool job and I have a lot of respect for the people that made a career out of that.
Q: What is the irony of you working at building 2000, the Sixteenth Air Force, Air Combat Command?
A: While I was on Okinawa, we worked for the USAF Security Service until it became the Electronic Security Command. It was headquartered out of this building (bldg. 2000), so I guess I was part of the early days of Security Hill. It was a challenge and it really got my full attention. You see, for us, sometimes the safety of the aircraft depended on your actions and abilities in a very real environment where you could be shot down and potentially end up in a prison camp in the Soviet Union.
Q: Through all of this what has motivated your drive?
A: Just a love for my country and the Air Force—it has been great. I love working with various warfighters, operators, business processes and people. You are delivering capabilities and it just becomes family and a fulfilling life. That daily interaction with a team working together to deliver something and improve it. Just that idea that you have a chance to improve how something is done and what you do might continue on.
Q: What was the highlight of your career?
A: These last 12 years here have been the real apex of my career. My career grew from delivering particular systems to representing operators and their equities in all of the capabilities that are being delivered to them. Also, I’ve grown to being at a sufficient level of authority to be able to represent operators, take action and influence the direction that things go.
Q: Do you think you are better positioned to influence because of your background?
A: Sure. However, considering the technical scope of things, there is so much out there that you can’t be an expert in all of it. It is never possible to really have enough technical knowledge so you realize you must rely on the operators. You have to develop the people skills to get them to engaged, absorb what their perspectives are and try to act on that and support it. You have to draw in the experts and have enough humility to not over project your knowledge. Once you bring in the people who really have the particular knowledge you pretty quickly discover you can nudge the direction of really viable solutions and get them in alignment with the technical strategy. It’s cool to be in that role.
Q: What would you tell other civil servants or prospective civilians about the Cyberspace Wing and the Air Force?
A: I think generally the AF has a limitless number of opportunities. Within that, do well at the job you have and try to contribute to the overall mission in that space and there will come a chance. Other opportunities will come so you should try to focus those so they will build upon each other. You will find that over time you have a portfolio of experiences that nobody else has and it brings a unique angle. Try to own that. Leverage that to bring more contribution to the mission and the missions that you effect. Things change and that is the hard part about cyber. So you have to try to be rational—one of my biggest challenges is to ensure operational effectiveness and that operators have capabilities they need today. Don’t just hunker down on today, but support the process in the most feasible way that keeps the mission viable.
Q: What advice would you offer to cyber operators on weathering the storm of change?
A: You must look after what you are currently doing from the top down. We tend to develop our vision, but the vision has got to include effective transition to it. So the operators need to totally support the transition to the vision but they also need to represent clearly the impacts and considerations that need to be accommodated on that path. And there is nobody else that can do it. It becomes like an additional duty on top of all of the other hard work that they do but it is a thing that nobody else can do or explain. Sometimes you have to let lose your favorite technologies and skills and adjust—because everyone will have to adjust to get into the new method. Don’t just push back on the new method, figure out what you have to have in your mission set to be able to get there.
Q: What leadership advice would you leave behind for current and future leaders in the cyber operations field?
A: I’ve usually been in a program manager and technical advisor role. It all goes back to understanding the vision and your role in it. You must understand not only your role in current operations but also your role in helping to get to that end state and support that as best as possible. Sometimes that means cutting your best person over to be a representative in those technical conversations. The easiest thing is to keep your best people at home to increase production. But sometimes you have to put your best people into the discussion to help transform.
Q: Looking back at the overview of historical events during your 45 years of service, what has been your go to method of resiliency?
A: The advice is to look within your locus of control and give encouragement. Encourage both personally and mission-wise. Everybody has concerns and change is a thing of life. When it comes to mission and Air Force work it helps to understand that all the churn and everything we are going through is part of a process to transform. It is okay to be frustrated, that is part of the work. When it comes to COVID-19 and all of those other things we just have to ride with that and support people. But mostly encouragement is the primary word.
Q: Do you feel like you are leaving your vision and role at a good place?
A: I think it’s a good time for me to leave. There are significant changes coming such as the Wing transformation, zero trust and the Centers of Excellence. I’ve think I’ve helped the Squadrons get what they need, and I feel like that’s been my biggest accomplishment; however, now with these changes and new approaches coming, the team could probably benefit from someone who has more career in front of them, a full head of steam and is ready to vigorously pursue that. So I am happy to step aside and let someone else take over. I’ve done what I can to posture the mission for success.
Q: What do you want the everyday civilian to know about Air Force Cyberspace operations?
A: We operate, protect and defend the AF networks. That is becoming an area of concern militarily. Cyberspace is its own warfighting domain and it is one that is ripe for asymmetric attack. It is hard work to protect it effectively and it is going to take some real teamwork from all areas to win in this area. Where we’ve always been on top in the air, land and sea, this one is new. I think we have done some great things and the things we are working on are going to take us there. That is exciting. But it’s serious, we really need to put our best into it.
Q: From the bottom up, Airmen have a pretty intimate understanding of the mission. What does that say about our ability to fight that threat?
A: I am not surprised since that is the Air Force I joined—one that fights. My enlisted time as a Russian-linguist, showed me the value of all ranks in the Air Force. In particular, I know the value of a Master Sgt. and how important they are. They lead the immediate fighting force. As a Russian linguist I played a role very much like cyber operator--day in and day out working those shifts and projecting that force. The mission happens among the enlisted and the things they accomplish. That is the joy of being in the Air Force—the teamwork. The AF as I’ve known it has been a place for patriots. They don’t stay because of the money, they stay because of the reward that comes from contribution. They are encouraged when they are given responsibilities and are recognized for fulfilling them. The AF is a family that perpetuates and continues that. It refines technical skills. You end up with Airmen who are highly skilled and could go out in the industry and make tons of money. Some do, but many stay because they love their country and what they are able to contribute and accomplish as a team. They are given lots of responsibility and they rise to it. So I am not surprised at all. That is what I expect from Airmen and the Air Force.
Q: Do you have any plans to work after you retire?
A: I may consult, I will set up an LLC and be available for consulting on cyber operations, etc., but I’m not going to actively pursue employment with any company directly. Since I have unique perspective and experience, I would probably enjoy some degree of engagement as long as I’m still bringing value. We’ll see. Primarily, though, my wife and I have purchased some land in Tennessee and are looking forward to building there and do some traveling.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I wouldn’t have done things any differently. I am very happy with my Air Force experience and the way it’s all played out. I’ve been especially impressed with the people in the Air Force. They have the highest integrity and are hopefully very representative of the American people in general. I am very glad to have been part of it. It will be hard to leave. I love delivering capabilities to users. I’ve done some awesome things for a very dynamic user base. I love the idea of applying computer technology to processes to help people that are struggling. What would be my advice to others? Come on in the water’s great, there’s a lot to do, and there’s no better environment to work in than the US Air Force!
Our Valiant Troops | I Am The One | Veterans | Citizens Like Us
U.S. Air Force | Air National Guard | U.S. Air Force Gifts | U.S. Department of Defense