This May, three Air Force Academy cadets will be the first to earn a bachelor’s of science degree in computer and network security — and they plan to make an impact on the world of cybersecurity.

As soon as Eric Wardner, Josh Hayden and Justin Niquette from the Class of 2016 graduate with the major, they will head to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., to attend cyber training as lieutenants to become cyber operators in the Air Force.

While studying computer and network security at the Academy, they’ve viewed real-world malware, learned hands-on, reverse engineering and helped a Colorado Springs defense company with security evaluation for its software.

“As the Air Force stands up to the new cyber career field, there is a big demand for officers who have deep, technical knowledge in defending and attacking information systems,” said Martin Carlisle, the school’s cybersecurity team coach and director of the Academy Center for Cyberspace Research. “The keyword is cyber and as a result, we designed this new major to prepare future officers to meet that need of the Air Force and country.”

The seniors have been a part of the Academy’s cyber team since their sophomore year, allowing them to take advanced computer courses and be the first to graduate with the degree. The Class of 2017 consists of the first full class of computer and network security majors.

“On the cyber team you learn about malware applicable to the real world, but in the reverse-engineering course [required for the major] you’re seeing actual malware that has infected a computer and trying to reverse engineer what it does,” said Wardner.

Major advantages

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Air Force leaders with a basis in cybersecurity are needed now and in the future, Wardner said.

“The Academy is commissioning officers in the Air Force, and whether we’re pilots, missileers or Intel officers, it’s the way the world is going,” he said. “If we can get pilots who know computer network security, I think that’s a big win for the Air Force, especially concerning future conflict.”

The Academy is accredited as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the National Security Agency, and offers related majors such as computer science, computer engineering and systems engineering.

Because of its core emphasis on math, science and engineering, any graduate — no matter what major — is qualified to go into Air Force cyber operations.

To create the new major, the Academy selected courses from the computer engineering and science departments, then created new ones, including the reverse engineering class. Next semester, forensic and telecommunications courses will be added to the curriculum, Carlisle said.

“When I talk to cadets about picking a major, I tell them, computer engineering focuses on the design of computer hardware; computer science is the design of computer software; and computer network security focuses on how to defend and attack information systems,” he said.

Cyber is so new, you can’t just read a textbook to figure it out, Hayden said.

“You have to know how to search for things that are hard to search for,” he said. “It’s finding that balance of knowing how far you can get before you actually need to ask for help. We’ve had great mentors at the Academy and it’s been nice to learn together, in a community.”

Opportunities in computer network security are vast and growing, Carlisle said.

“They exist not only in the DoD [Department of Defense] but in private industry such as banking, utilities and Internet of Things,” he said. “There are a lot of companies who need people who understand how to secure information systems. The skills cadets are learning at the Academy will serve them well in serving the country and later in industry when they get out of the Air Force.”

Partnerships

Two cadets from the major worked with Braxton Technologies this semester, conducting a security analysis for its software.

“Companies bring us a project that cadets can learn about and perhaps help the company in the process,” Carlisle said. “The partnerships we have with industry will help us to develop cadets and improve the business climate in Colorado Springs. We’re always looking for projects for our senior cadets to work on so if any companies have ideas, they can contact me.”

As plans for the Air Force Cyber Innovation Center move forward, the Academy plans to collaborate with the community to innovate and expand perspectives about how to address cyber problems, he said.

“The goal is to attract cyber experts to come to Colorado Springs and develop industry to address difficult cyber problems not only for the DoD but the nation as a whole,” he said.

Senior-level interest in cyber continues to increase, Carlisle said.

“If we went back 10, 15 years ago, senior leaders would have said, ‘IT is something we can outsource,’” he said. “Now they’re saying, ‘We need people in uniform to understand the technology and how we attack and defend these information systems.’”

Cyber team

The Academy’s cyber team was created in 2010 and has gone from six to 20 cadets.

“When it first started we were doing  two to three competitions a year and now we’re up to about 15,” Carlisle said. “There has been a lot of growth, interest, and cadets have done extremely well.”

Last fall, one of the Academy’s cyber teams took second place during the CyberSEED competition at the University of Connecticut and for the last two years, the Academy has remained the second top U.S. team at the University of California Santa Barbara’s International Capture the Flag hacking competition.

Wardner said his favorite competition is Cyber Stakes, an annual inter-service cyber competition sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“It starts off with the easiest level of problem and goes up to really complex problems that we haven’t solved yet,” he said. “It’s really neat to be able to make that progression and a good tool for learning on your own, figuring things out and getting help when you need it.”

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Amber Baillie
A Colorado native, Amber Baillie graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. For over three years, she wrote for the Air Force Academy's official base newspaper and has written articles for Your Boulder and the Cheyenne and Woodmen Editions. For the Business Journal, she covers cyber, aerospace and defense, and nonprofit news.