Air Force Takes Steps to Defend Cyber Domain
By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2010 Computer networks can do a lot of things. They can turn your neighbor’s kid into a viral video phenomenon, they can let you know you’re about to miss your connection in Atlanta, and they can be a line of defense in protecting national assets.
Maj. Gen. Michael J. Basla, vice commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., is concerned with the latter.
In a “DOD Live” bloggers roundtable yesterday, Basla discussed the Air Force’s cyberspace mission, cybersecurity and the training and education the Air Force is providing to airmen in the field.
Basla said the Air Force’s mission emphasizes mission assurance: how to conduct operations in, to and from cyberspace and how to react as quickly as possible to emerging threats.
“There’s a great threat to American security out there in the cyberspace domain, and it's real, it's significant, it's persistent, and we are under attack every day,” Basla said. “The defense of our networks is essential for us to conduct all kinds of day-to-day activities -- in the commercial sector, in the public sector, in the military sector.
“So the Department of Defense recognized this,” he continued, “and as the Department of Defense does, they said we need to have a capability organic to our Department of Defense so that we could carry out anything our government might ask us to do in the defense of our networks.”
The general said the Air Force looked at its core capabilities -- related to speed, access and distance –- and determined how to best meet the Defense Department’s requirement to defeat threats from cyberspace. That starts with teaching new officers and enlisted airmen how to fight on the digital battlefield, Basla said.
The Air Force is reconciling that need with the requirements of the job. Basla said 100 percent of the service’s original cyberspace officers had to have technical degrees before being admitted to the cybersecurity program. Now, only about 80 percent need them.
“We wanted to have tech, math, science, and engineering degrees, but we were advised that there are some folks that could come from the social sciences that could contribute -- you know, something about looking at the problem a little differently,” he said. “So we've allowed for some exceptions.”
Interest in the field has increased generally, he said, because the young people enlisting and enrolling at the Air Force Academy have grown up with computers, at least in their schools.
“There's a great deal of interest, I will tell you, and that's the encouraging thing,” he said. Potential cyber airmen “want to understand what their responsibilities will be, and how they can get involved,” he added. “And so I'm encouraged about that.”
Part of his encouragement is related to the prevalence of computing –- though most recruits come to the Air Force with working knowledge of computer systems, many don’t understand the risks associated, such as phishing scams and virus attacks. Basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas now includes two sections on being a good “cyber wingman” and taking care of the network, and the Air Force Academy now offers a cybersecurity major.
“It's hands-on lab work. It's ‘red versus blue forces’ exercises. It is instruction. It is classroom work,” he said.
The increased capabilities, though, come with an increased demand for people. The Air Force plans to bring in 220 people under a new Air Force specialty code, and Air Force schools will graduate another 50 cyber specialists yearly.
“As I talk to the folks in the field and we get feedback from the combatant commands that are now starting to understand that cyberspace brings another aspect of warfighting capability to the fight, some of the things that we are hearing are that we want more of these,” he said.
Integrating the new specialty -- a consolidation of 11 other specialties including airfield systems maintainers, network operators and information managers -- into planning and execution cycles still a work in progress, Basla said. He pointed out that the cyber field has two sides.
“When you look inside of that specialty -- and certainly that specialty includes these ‘3-Deltas’ -- there are two pieces to that picture,” he said. “The one piece is the technical experts who help develop and create and sustain that cyberspace domain that we've been talking about. And then there's another component of that picture that are the operators that operate inside that domain that was just created.”
One group is made up of people who are facilitators and maintainers of networks, he explained, and the other is made up of those with operational capabilities.
He said today’s problems regarding network operations and security are drastically different from those of the past, and that creates the need for both operators and facilitators. In the past, a blinking light meant a network interruption needed fixing. Now, that blinking light could signify an attack, rather than the need for a routine repair.
“Today, the operator must say first, ‘Is there some adversary that is getting into my networks that is trying to interrupt my mission assurance capabilities?’ So that's the difference, and we need both,” he said.