Cyber Defense

How the Air Force is taking on the cyber domain

The Air Force has plenty of firepower, but some of its biggest concerns these days concern other domains. “We’re the best Air Force in the industrial age, but we’re living in the information age,” Lt. Gen. William Bender, chief of Information Dominance and CIO of the Air Force, said Wednesday at the Air Force IT Day hosted by AFCEA, as he and other officials outlined some of the steps the service is taking to maintain an edge across all domains.

In March, the Air Force established acyber task force, which has made a significant difference, changing the game for the service going forward, he said. It has been an enterprise level initiative, which means everyone is involved, and has addressed enterprise level problems such as budget, a changing culture and policy.

One of the reasons for creating the task force was to get at the question of protecting weapons systems, said Peter Kim, deputy director of cyberspace operations for the Air Force. “We had to find someone who could diagnose a problem and say ‘what are we really need to be concerned about?’” he said, noting the discussion included the Defense Department unclassified NIPRNet, the classified SIPRNet and the Air Force Network, AFNET. “Are the core missions assured? Do we have mission assurance in and through cyberspace? And if we don’t know what that answer is, do we have a risk mitigation strategy? Is there a way we can fight through the cyberspace that’s contested?”

While networks have anti-virus measures, Kim said that concerns were more focused on high-tech weapons systems such as the F-22 Raptor. 

The task force started by funding near-term initiatives, the “low hanging fruit,” Kim said. “If there’s stuff that we can get at that remediate the risk, the cyber risk to weapons systems platform or mission, we were very fortunate to get some of the money from [the Air Force Financial Management and Comptroller], we just started funding projects.”

Following the conclusion of the task force’s experimental run, Bender said, “we’re going to hand an enduring framework to the Air Force that has cyber as a constant understanding in cyberspace and [a] fully fleshed out and understood domain, we’re going to have risk management strategy for how we’re going to deal with the cyber-contested environment, we’re going to have a much better idea of the problem and we’re going to have a laundry list to prioritize investments.”

Another critical component is the cyber workforce. Both Bender and Kim were keen to mention that this will be a transformative process. Personnel must be trained to operate in cyberspace and within cybersecurity, and build on an increasing partnership with industry and academia, Bender said.

“We have cyberspace operators and we have cyberspace operations personnel, and I don’t want to say they’re support, I don’t want to say they’re IT…but they provide extremely valuable services to our Air Force in terms of AFNET ops,” Kim said, noting that the service also has to incorporate its operations with the DOD-wide Joint Operating Environment.

Additionally, the airmen of today are significantly different than the airmen of previous generations. “It is fundamentally a different mindset of these recruits that come in,” said Maj. Gen. Bradford Shwedo, Commander of the 25th Air Force. “They look at the software…and they’re very comfortable going into the ones and zeros of software and changing them to their advantage. I love that, ’cause we’re bringing these guys in and they’re finding ways to change ones and zeros to make bad guys go away every day. And we’re exploiting those on the cyber side.” 

Lastly, there is the Cyber Mission Force, which will by 2017 consist of a total of 133 teams across DOD. The breakdown of the teams will consist of 68 Cyber Protection Teams that will be focused on DOD’s No. 1 mission – defense of the network; 13 National Mission Teams that will help defend the nation’s critical infrastructure; 27 Combat Mission Teams that will be aligned with the combatant commanders and assist in their planning and operations; and 25 Support Teams that will be available to support the National Mission and Combat Mission teams. 

The Air Force will provide 39 teams to the overall mission force with 1,700 personnel, Col. Robert Cole, director of Air Forces Cyber Forward said. Those personnel will be drawn from both the 24th Air Force, the service’s cyber wing, and the 25th Air Force, which focuses on full spectrum decision advantage, ISR and electronic warfare. 

In the end, the Air Force’s contribution to the cyber mission force will be roughly a 60/40 split of cyber and intelligence personnel because the cyber defensive element has so many more teams, Cole stated. 

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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