Cyber Defense

Air Force gets serious about securing infrastructure

In future conflicts, cyber warfare could be used to target critical civilian or military infrastructure to reduce the warfighting capabilities of a nation. To deal with this growing threat, the Air Force has taken steps to ensure the security of its support systems.

One of these steps is an initiative signed into effect June 12 that will bring Air Forces Cyber and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center together to create the AFCEC-AFCYBER Nexus collaboration. The goal of the project is to improve the security of industrial control systems (ICS) that support the Air Force’s infrastructure, according to an Air Force release.

ICS is a term that includes control systems such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and distributed control systems (DCS) that are commonly used to automate physical industrial processes such as oil and gas, electrical and transportation operations. Securing these systems is critical to operating infrastructure, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

For the Air Force, ICS are used for a variety of functions such as heating and air conditioning systems and remotely dealing with environmental issues – many of which are critical to its daily operations. These systems have both a network component and a hardware component, meaning that AFCEC and AFCYBER have often worked together. Traditionally, AFCYBER handles the network side while AFCEC deals with the physical equipment and hardware.

"Protecting ICS within the Air Force is a component of our line of effort to defend the Air Force information network and other key mission systems. Partnering with the civil engineering community enables us to do that much more effectively," said Maj. Gen. James K. McLaughlin, the 24th Air Force and AFCYBER commander. "Our work in this area also gives us practice in tactics, techniques and procedures which can be applied elsewhere if we are ever called upon to support national efforts."

The document identifies a list of 14 issues that the two agencies will have to address. AFCYBER and AFCEC will begin forming working groups to begin tackling the top five concerns.

For example, the collaboration will attempt to accelerate the deployment of a civil engineering-created software program to monitor, detect and restore ICS, develop security and acquisitions standards for ICS, create an inventory of ICS assets and mitigate the effects of ICS disruption.

The new, formalized agreement would allow the Air Force to better defend ICS from outside attacks, as well as streamline personnel assignments and operations. The need for better efficiency is driven by the increased interconnectedness between the traditional civil engineering realm and cyber networks.

"ICS has become increasingly reliant on information and networking technologies," said 1st Lt. James Gaglio, defensive cyber operations test director for the 346th Test Squadron. "We are starting to see that civil engineering is no longer separated into its own realm, but highly integrated with cyber components since ICS rides on the networks the cyber community controls. The partnership between the cyber and civil engineering communities is a great step forward in terms of collaboration and advancement."

Worries over protecting military and civilian infrastructure continue to run high as revelations of cyber attacks conducted by foreign governments continue to emerge. U.S. criminal charges filed against Chinese military hackers in May were quickly followed up by a report that revealed evidence of a second People’s Liberation Army cyber spying unit that focused on foreign satellite and aerospace industries.

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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