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Airmen participate in the live, virtual, constructive portion of Red Flag 15-2 at the Combined Operations Center-Nellis on Nellis Air Force Base. Red Flag evolves as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber presence increases. (Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Spangler/Released)

Airmen participate in the live, virtual, constructive portion of Red Flag 15-2 at the Combined Operations Center-Nellis on Nellis Air Force Base. Red Flag evolves as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber presence increases. (Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Thomas Spangler/Released)

The Air Force cyber landscape of today is not the same as 10 or even five years ago; every Air Force core mission is impacted and connected by cyber. In response, the service has created the Cyber Squadron Initiative.

The initiative trains small teams from existing manpower that focus on defensive cyber operations of Air Force weapons systems.

In order to meet the increasing cyberspace-related threats and demands, the Air Force is shifting its focus from operating and maintaining traditional information technology services to stronger offensive and defensive cyber capabilities that support core missions.

“Air Force core missions are cyber dependent, and the complexities and threats in this environment have grown exponentially,” said Lt. Gen. William J. Bender, the Air Force chief information dominance officer and chief information officer. “We are leaning forward to tailor the cyber force by leveraging industry partners and the joint information environment to perform basic IT services, thereby enabling Airmen to move away from a unitary focus on IT service delivery toward a holistic cyberspace approach that includes active mission defense and mission assurance.”

The Cyber Squadron Initiative enhances the capabilities of cyber Airmen to defend, assure and optimize unit missions in, through and from cyberspace. Currently, 15 initial cyber squadrons – called pathfinder units – have been organized, trained and equipped to deploy cutting-edge applications to provide mission assurance to their wing’s critical missions. They are being joined by 30 new pathfinder units that were recently announced and have already begun training while identifying their key terrain in cyberspace.

Ultimately, pathfinder Airmen will present commanders with a more complete understanding of the risks military operations face in cyberspace. Pathfinders identify a wing’s specific mission threats in order to determine cyber implications, Lt. Col. Billy Pope, from the Air Force Chief Information Office Cyberspace Strategy Branch and leader of the program, explained.

The initiative will mitigate risk to the wing’s portion of the Air Force’s core missions: air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control.

As these pathfinder units activate, all Airmen will see more integration of mission defense teams throughout the mission planning phases all the way to execution.

“Our adversaries understand that cyberspace offers a potential asymmetric advantage,” Pope said. “We must develop capabilities, culture, and organizational structures to safeguard our Air Force core missions against cyber threats.”

An updated program action directive and Air Force policy are scheduled to be implemented this year, with funding for new training in cyber school houses for officer, civilian and enlisted in fiscal year 2018. Implementation of all changes is expected by 2026.

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