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Cyberspace critical to nuclear treaty monitoring

AFTAC Cyberspace Capabilities Squadron

Hector Velez, a Cyber Capabilities Squadron Linux systems administrator, Air Force Technical Applications Center, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., troubleshoots a lost connection to a server that keeps AFTAC’s nuclear treaty monitoring mission going strong. (U.S. Air Force photo/Susan A. Romano)

AFTAC Cyberspace Capabilities Squadron

Logan Keith, a storage administrator with the Cyber Capabilities Squadron, Air Force Technical Applications Center, Patrick AFB, Fla., verifies the inventory of tapes and replenishes the tape silo as needed to conduct the center’s nuclear treaty monitoring mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Susan A. Romano)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- The Air Force Technical Applications Center here is charged with ensuring each and every nation across the globe complies with the ban on nuclear weapons testing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Members of AFTAC answer that call without fail – monitoring nuclear treaty compliance is their business.

To accomplish this task, the center uses a network of 3,600 worldwide sensors across multiple domains to collect a variety of data critical to revealing magnitude, yield and location of nuclear explosions. Regardless of what corner of the earth the data comes from or how the data is collected, the information must be transmitted back to the U.S. so analysts can transform the information into usable data that our national decision makers can rely on.

While Airmen performing the data analysis are the best in the business, they could not execute their job without the skill and expertise of members of AFTAC’s Cyber Capabilities Squadron. The primary mission of CYCS is to generate, project and sustain cyberspace capabilities by providing mission assurance for AFTAC’s global enterprise. In other words, AFTAC’s treaty monitoring mission cannot be effectively accomplished without access to cyberspace.

“My squadron supports all information technology services that AFTAC needs to achieve operational success,” said Maj. Nathan Loyd, the CYCS commander. “We support the mission through our oversight and sustainment of our servers, long haul communications systems, databases, and hardware/software. AFTAC is responsible for the largest sensor network in the Air Force, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

Loyd is a career cyberspace operations officer who took command of CYCS in July. Prior to joining the AFTAC team, he was assigned to various roles in the fields of cyber, electronic warfare, information systems and automations. His leadership philosophy is based on the foundation of trust.

“Trust is the single most important key to effective leadership-followership,” Loyd said. “Our cyber mission is too large for any one person to handle alone, so I believe in trusting and empowering our Airmen down to the lowest possible level. That allows for more flexibility across the board.”

In August 2016, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein outlined his number one focus area – squadron revitalization. He informed personnel Air Force wide that he considers squadrons to be the basic building block of the force and our most essential team, and squadron commanders have the most profound and lasting impact on Airmen and families.

It’s a charge Loyd has taken to heart.

“The Air Force is focusing heavily on reinvigorating the role of squadrons based on feedback received from various climate surveys and strategic planning meetings,” said Loyd. “The chief of staff wants to empower squadrons to have more authority to make decisions at the lowest possible level. As a relatively new member of the AFTAC team, my goal is to take Gen. Goldfein’s vision and incorporate it into every decision I make and every action I take.”

A majority of CYCS’s efforts is tied to the DOD Information Network (DOIN) to ensure data confidentiality, integrity and availability. Loyd’s 150-person squadron is made up of a cross-section of talent – officers, enlisted, civilians and contractors – each filling critical roles as system and network administrators, help desk technicians, project managers and troubleshooters.

“Like many organizations throughout the Air Force, our people-to-mission ratio is not quite right,” he said. “I’m working with my officers, civilian and senior enlisted leaders within the squadron to define where our limitations are, figure out what we can do to eliminate extraneous workloads, and determine how we can operate more efficiently with scarce resources.”

Today’s cyber landscape is ever-evolving and one that sees increasing threats from those who want to disrupt it, whether that disruption comes from simple non-malicious, attention-seeking hackers or from combative nation-states with the purposeful intent to interfere with military operations and their IT systems. Government entities, to include Air Force organizations, are dependent on computer networks and systems, and rely on those information systems to successfully execute their global missions.

As with any complex IT operation, however, the systems are vulnerable, and Loyd’s team addresses this concern every day.

“Our biggest obstacle is balancing cybersecurity postures with the needs of a high operations tempo,” he explained. “AFTAC is a high-speed, enormously innovative organization that uses technology in its drive for change and evolution. So to balance that demand, it’s critical we ensure our CYCS Airmen are trained and certified to continually be on the cutting edge of technology.”

He added, “Here in CYCS, we are working towards standardizing our enterprise to increase efficiencies in system maintenance. Additionally, we are posturing the squadron to establish a Mission Defense Team, focusing on cyberspace defensive operations to our mission critical systems. This pathfinder initiative takes aim at protecting the mission’s crown jewels. It is an important shift in posture to ensure AFTAC is able to execute its treaty monitoring mission across air, sea, space and cyberspace.”

Col. Steven M. Gorski, the AFTAC commander, emphasized Loyd’s comment on the need to focus on cyberspace defense.

“In today’s world, cyber threats pose serious challenges to AFTAC,” Gorski said. “Here at AFTAC, access to networks play a powerfully role in our daily responsibilities. Lack of access can significantly impact the effectiveness of our organization, and that’s why having the best people on board – leaders like Maj. Loyd and his incredibly talented Airmen who form his cyber team – is crucial to our worldwide mission. Countering cyber threats is all about risk management, and Maj. Loyd’s squadron fully understands that threat and takes every step possible to keep our systems and networks safe.”

When asked what he sees as the Cyber Capabilities Squadron’s strongest asset, Loyd said, “Our squadron has done tremendous work in providing continuous, secure communications for AFTAC. CYCS’s shining moments are defined each time mission data is available on demand for our customers and delivered securely and without degradation. That’s the bottom line.”

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