Cadets study art of cyber warfare

  • Published
  • By David Edwards
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Rising sophomores at the Air Force Academy might compile a "things I did this summer" list that looks a little something like this:

Deployment exercise, check. Piloted an airplane, check. Trained by the Air Force to be computer hacker, check.

That last one is not a joke. Thanks to a newly introduced summer course called Cyber 256, Basic Cyber Operations, cadets doing battle with a keyboard and mouse get to see and do some pretty devious stuff.

Rather than developing a by-the-book computer science course, leaders wanted to anchor it in something specific, namely the mission. Everything about basic cyber emphasizes practical application.

"We had to create a way for cadets to train other cadets how to attack and defend a network," said Lt. Col. David Bibighaus, one of the architects of the course. "Unlike soaring, we had to build the aircraft and the airfield as well, so to speak."

The course gives upperclassmen another choice for a summer program, and rounds out the training regimen designed to fit the Air Force mission of fighting and winning in air, space and cyberspace.

Six sessions of the course are offered throughout the summer. Basic cyber is intended to whet cadets' appetites for more in-depth work in computer science. Believe it or not, that's not as easy as it might sound.

"Some of the cadets are very standoffish at first, (as if to say) 'I'm not of that nerd bent,'" Bibighaus said. "We want to show them that there's still a way for them to apply their skills."

That calls for a variety of activities, which the course delivers. For example, cadets were assigned to write a letter hoping to lure the recipient into a phishing scheme. The exercise tests their creativity and ingenuity because the success of the endeavor relies entirely on whether or not the letter is convincing.

The bulk of the course is dedicated to attacking and exploiting computer networks. One of the first things participants do is acquire a freely downloadable hacker toolkit and adopt the hacker mentality.

"That gets you to be a kindergarten-level hacker," Bibighaus said. "There's not a whole lot you can do. But a lot of cadets realize how much fun it is. There's a temptation to go beyond the basics. We have to emphasize that the Air Force will allow you to do this, but you have to do it in a controlled setting."

Another case in point is the introduction to Wi-Fi exploitation. Bibighaus showed off a bare-bones surveillance tool made from about $100 worth of materials from a hardware store. Pointing the device across Interstate 25 opens a window on some 50 Wi-Fi networks more than three miles away.

Things get especially interesting when the tables are turned, he said. He tells the cadets to imagine someone with far more sophisticated equipment on the other side of I-25 setting his sights on the Academy's networks.

Also included in the course is a chance to see how the pros do it. A field trip to the Integrated Network Operations and Security Center, or INOSC, at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., serves cadets the proverbial cup of coffee in the big leagues of cyberspace.

In the most recent session of the course, practice attacking and defending networks also provided a pretext for taking some subtle jibes at rival military academies. Two fictitious countries were created, Amsu and Silopanna -- USMA, or the U.S. Military Academy, and Annapolis spelled backwards.

The coursework isn't just meant to give cadets a few laughs. In discovering how much fun computer science can be, cadets are encouraged to explore other options available to them at the Academy, such as working at the cyber warfare lab and competing in the annual government-sponsored cyber exercise.

"We think we're the only folks doing this," said Col. David Gibson, the computer science department head, who helped design the course. "There are some commercial folks doing something similar, but not in a military context. That's what our nation needs; we really need good defenders. You need to know what's coming at you."