Airmen train for ‘new wild, wild west’ in cyber domain

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarrod Chavana
  • 3rd Combat Camera Squadron
On any given day, the Defense Department defends itself against numerous cyber-attacks at installations throughout the world. To help combat this growing threat, Airmen from the 39th Information Operations Squadron train to defend computer networks against invisible ordnance in the operational domain of cyberspace.

The 39th IOS is the Air Force Force's premier information operations and formal cyber training unit. Operated by Air Force Space Command's 24th Air Force, the squadron conducts qualification and advanced training to provide mission-ready information operations and cyber warfare operators for all Air Force major commands.

"The demand for trained cyber operators has significantly increased over the past three to five years," said Maj. Mark Dieujuste, the 39th IOS director of operations. "We don't see this going away. One of the classes we teach is the information operations integration course, which is the initial qualification training for Airmen assigned to operational-level information operations team billets in air operations centers."

Housed in a state-of-the-art 22,000-square-foot facility, the squadron schoolhouse features several classrooms, solid vaulted doors, and instructors with experience on what it takes to defend the cyber domain.

"Cyber is the new wild, wild west," said Gen. John E. Hyten, the commander of Air Force Space Command. "It took us about 30 years to figure out how to make space a real warfighting domain and operate in it accordingly. We do not have that time in cyber, because cyber is under threat every day. The big difference between space and cyber is the cost of access into space is significant.

"But the cost for cyberspace is a laptop and an internet connection, and then you can be a threat to anybody," he added. "That is the challenge that we have there. So we have to monitor our cyberspace domain, we have to monitor everything that goes through cyberspace. We have to be able to defend that, and if somebody does something bad to us, we have to be able to do something about it."

All 39th IOS classrooms are equipped with cutting edge communication and computer systems, to include secure video teleconferencing and fiber optic infrastructures. This allows real-time war gaming and improved instruction at multiple security levels.

"In order to create a worthwhile training environment in the cyber area, it's not just about learning how to push a button, and making your computer do things while being able to understand the tactics, techniques, and procedures," said Scott Runyan, 39th IOS technical advisor. "It's not enough to just understand it, but you have to practice it. For us to allow our students to fly, we have to create the cyber domain.

"We have replicated what an average base computer system might look like, what the average Air Force gateway may look like, and we then create maneuver space," he continued. "We then create opportunities for our folks to control the bad guys. We show them, 'This is what is happening in the network, this is what you should see, but this is what's happening; now find them, fix them, track them, target, engage, assess, and close them out.'"

As students advance in the class they are not given a scenario, but told to, “find the issue and fix it.”

"Our red team is in the back of the class ... and they are trying to take down service in real time," Runyan said. "They are looking at wired, wireless, satellite communications; things like this all enter into the mix of how we are training our folks."

Red team members are instructors pretending to be adversaries and are trying to hack into the computer system.

At the 30th annual Air Force Association Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III listed space and cyber space with the importance of having the F-35 fielded and ready.

"Cyber is definitely a force multiplier," Runyan said. "It's definitely a way of building efficiencies within a dwindling budget environment. Cyber is one way to do that as we are automating different aspects of what we do, and the automation has created and bred a certain dependency on it."

Although the schoolhouse possesses advanced software, they routinely use open source technology to provide students with an idea of what adversaries may be using.

"When you think of cyber, think about the whole Air Force mission," Runyan said. "Threats we see every day come from a variety of sources and you can't really pin it down without digging a lot deeper. You are going to see the teenager just out for a joy ride, you are going to see the hacktivist groups ... you are going to see nation states, and you are going to see terrorists. Never in the history of warfare has the power of one been greater."

During the course, students work side-by-side to learn the fundamentals regardless of rank.

"You have folks who've been communication squadron commanders who've done information technology their entire career," said Runyan. "We may have an airmen first class who may have had some experience in the IT world, but now we have to do the same thing for them.

"We give them the same classes, the same cognitive training, the same psychomotor hands-on training," he said. "Where we find the difference is when we get into the crew training elements, we start giving you a job commensurate with your rank."

A dynamic training environment, cyberspace curriculum tactics, techniques and procedures change at a moment's notice with constantly changing technology.

"Regardless of the fighting domain, we need trained operator1s to achieve superiority, which is ultimately the goal of the Department of Defense," Dieujuste said. "The same holds true in cyberspace; we are the force who will gain superiority in that domain. Our mission is to train cyber space operators and that fight starts here. The purpose of this schoolhouse is to provide Airmen the necessary skills to protect the networks without much on-the-job training.

"Often times Airmen learn their skill sets at their new base, but we don't have this luxury; they must be ready when they get there," he added. "This is a unique opportunity to develop the next generation of cyberspace operators as the Air Force asserts control and conducts cyberspace operations. I think the need for this level of training will increase, and I can see this unit remaining at the forefront."