ACC emphasizes shift in focus to cyber vigilance

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Daryl Knee
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs
Air Combat Command participated in an Air Force first by testing the reporting capabilities of a mission defense team during a base-wide exercise at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, June 11-15, 2018.

The 325th Communications Squadron’s MDT is the first operational unit of its kind in Air Combat Command, and the base exercise emphasized the command’s cyber efforts by showcasing the unit’s communication with Joint Base Langley-Eustis’ Cyber Defense Operation Center, located in Virginia, prototype.

“The mission defense team has never been a part of these exercises in the past,” said Senior Master Sgt. Sam Prichard, 325th CS cyber defense flight chief. “Since we’re evolving our mission assurance framework, we wanted to take this opportunity to join the exercise and test our own processes under similar, albeit cyberspace, defense related conditions.”

The overall purpose of the exercise was to test the 325th Fighter Wing’s capability to fly aircraft in a deployed environment. The MDT played a part in the success of the exercise by prototyping the way forward with assessing cyber risks associated with one of the Air Force’s major weapons systems, the aircraft.

“It’s an increase in situational awareness and cyber readiness for those weapon systems,” said Steve Simkins, ACC/A6 Communications Directorate chief of Warfighting Integration and Interoperability. “It’s a fairly new aspect because of the platforms we employ today. We recognize that we’re not immune to cyber threats, and the cyber realm is no longer uncontested. This is a step in the right direction for a persistent cyber defense capability.”

One of the reasons for this specific partnership between the CDOC and the 325th CS MDT was to determine the correct reporting process to up-channel the simulated glitches with Tyndall AFB’s aircraft computer equipment, said Kevin Baskerville, the Mission Assurance Flight commander from ACC Communications Support Squadron. The analysts at the CDOC can then correlate and determine any commonality of the anomalies with, in the future, similar findings from every other Air Force installation.

Simply put, if a pilot thinks something went wrong with software or a computer system inside the aircraft, the Air Force is now developing a process to send a report to a team of cyber analysts to determine if it was one isolated failure or if aircraft from across the globe are experiencing the same hiccup.

Once the CDOC notices similar errors across the fleet, they can then issue guidance to the MDTs to troubleshoot the problem or even contact the manufacturer of the system to fix the flaw before being issued to the service.

It’s a complicated, but necessary, process to mitigate risks to the ACC’s complex and modern aircraft.

“Aircraft are a system of systems,” said 2nd Lt. James Lockatell, the officer in charge of Cyber Readiness at the ACC/CSS. “And cyber is just one avenue of defense. Even an issue that appears mechanical can be computer generated.”

For example, the landing gear of an aircraft may experience a delay in deploying, he said. This may seem like a maintenance problem, but it’s possible that an unknown cyber threat is attacking the system. Maintenance Airmen may determine the aircraft is in sound condition, and the without a cyber focus on the issue, the aircraft could be returned to duty.

“We’ve got to look at cyber vigilance and cyber resiliency to determine the correct mission impact,” he said. “There are already highly trained Airmen who are specialized in avionics back-shop repair, and we’re not trying to replace their function or importance. But, it’s the unknown threats or outside factors that commanders may not be aware of. It’s another tool for commanders to make informed decisions by assessing the correctly identified risks and generating alternative and innovative methods of mission accomplishment.”

And the way forward is clear. Gen. Mike Holmes, ACC commander, outlined the importance of cyber defense in an operating concept published earlier this year. Defending these non-traditional platforms requires a new approach – one that is innovative, collaborative, agile, and acknowledges the custom nature of the cyber terrain.

“Hopefully what we are doing (at Tyndall) is shared across MDTs in the Air Force,” Prichard said. “Our team wants to be the stepping stone for procedures, so when a unit comes across a problem, they have a streamlined process to get it resolved.”

(Some information from this article came from an article written by Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, public affairs.)