In 2014, the 50th Space Communications Squadron became the first pathfinder squadron for a new cyber defense initiative.
The program may have changed names since, from “Cyber Squadron: The Future” to “CommSquadronNEXT” and, finally, to “Cyber Squadron-Initiative,” but the focus has been the same: transforming communications squadrons into a blended maintenance and defense group.
“Traditionally, the comm squadrons in the past have been your [information technology] and service-based comm support functions. But in the future, we’re going to provide both that service and your defensive cyber operations capabilities,” said Capt. Jeffrey Pelkey, 50 SCS director of operations. “Now, with both of those combined, we’ll be providing mission assurance to those particular weapons systems we need to defend.”
The mission defense teams have already applied this new knowledge in real world situations.
“There have been a few real world instances where our team was able to prove their operating concepts,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Rhodes, 50 SCS flight chief. “We were able to exercise our incident response plan, apply the analysis techniques we learned in training and mitigate threats to the Air Force Satellite Control Network.”
The primary function of CS-I is to align priorities to missions or weapons systems across air, space and cyberspace in support of the five core missions of the Air Force: Air and Space Superiority, Global Integrated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Rapid Global Mobility, Global Strike, and Command and Control.
“This all really kicked-off because the Air Force realized that we’re defending [Non-classified Internet Protocol Network] and [Secret Internet Protocol Network] really well, but we’re not defending those five core mission areas of the Air Force,” Pelkey said.
Rhodes said the entire communications career field is experiencing a shift in operational focus.
“The shift to an operational mindset in training has been challenging, but rewarding,” he said. “Within the communications career fields there are several specialties that focus on a singular area of IT. For a mission defense team to be successful, they must focus on every aspect of computer systems, understand how components interact in a regular manner and then be able to detect when anomalies occur and how to respond appropriately.”
The CS-I mission is to provide commanders active defensive cyber operations capabilities to mitigate risk to their wing’s priority missions, with enhanced cyber situational awareness for wing operations, all while ensuring traditional information technology capabilities.
“As we evolve and learn how to defend these mission systems, we’ll also learn better how to maintain it,” Pelkey said. “With those defensive capabilities, you also understand your architecture better. We have something called functional mission analysis, which really gets our teams out there to map up the networks. Mapping the network to operations [means] we understand it at a level we’ve never understood before, which enables us to defend the system more appropriately.”
While the 50 SCS was the first pathfinder, the Air Force has since stood up at least 15 more squadrons.
“Right now they’re focusing on standing up those units at least at each major command and wings that have unique systems they feel are critical to the defense of the nation,” Pelkey said.
Being the first pathfinder has provided 50 SCS with many benefits.
“I’ve received close to 200 hours of additional training from both military and civilian courses, to include a mission commander’s course, functional mission analysis and network characterization,” said Rhodes.
Once finalized, the plan is to incorporate this new curriculum into the technical school training, giving all communications airmen the additional skill set.
“This training is effectively raising the bar in what we expect our communications airmen to learn and the level at which they operate,” Rhodes said. “As we continue to press down this path, we will see more well-rounded airmen in the IT field who can perform tasks and conduct operations well above what they are being asked to do currently. Whether those individuals are utilized on the comm maintenance side of the house, or the mission defense side, the comm squadron will be better equipped to handle its existing mission and any new mission sets levied against it.”
One of the biggest benefits though, Pelkey said, is the ability to provide Defense Connect Online capability for the 50th Space Wing’s space systems.
“That [DCO] hasn’t really existed that much in the past,” Pelkey said. “Now, we’re making it more robust.”
“As we continue to develop capabilities to secure and defend the wing’s mission systems,” Rhodes added. “We will be able to develop and refine our in-house training process to ensure that the best trained airmen are available to conduct defensive cyber operations.” n CSBJ