24th Air Force finds its place in cyberspace

Nearly two years after its launch, the 24th Air Force is defining its role in a rapidly expanding Defense Department cyber infrastructure.

It’s been nearly two years since the 24th Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, was certified for operation and began performing its mission as the Air Force component of the U.S. Cyber Command. Since receiving the green light from Air Force Space Command in January 2010, the 24th, headed by Maj. Gen. Suzanne “Zan” Vautrinot, has worked hard to carve its own niche in the government’s cybersecurity framework and to fulfill its mission of defending the Air Force portion of the Defense Department's IT network operations.

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Col. David Hathaway, the 24th Air Force’s director of operations and plans, said his team is working to fulfill two roles: a combatant responsibility that involves representing the Air Force to U.S. Cyber Command as well as a service commitment to Space Command, which in turn equips the 24th with the technical, training and other resources that enables it to meet its cyber commitments to Cyber Command.

Mission focus

Despite its dual responsibilities, Hathaway said that as the Air Force’s cyber command, the 24th is always focused on its fundamental mission. “Our job is to operate, defend and extend cyberspace within the Air Force portion of the defense global information grid,” he said, adding that this responsibility includes the requirement to bring secure communications services to wherever they’re needed. “We don’t always sit at home,” he explained. “We have the ability to extend our combat comm wing, the enterprise and the network out to expeditionary locations.”

Meanwhile, the 24th isn’t only a communications services provider; it must also guarantee Air Force personnel, wherever they are located, the highest possible degree of support and security. “It’s more than just providing the wires and the connections and the computers and the phones,” Hathaway said. “We have the same defenses when we’re deployed as we have on critical command and control links at home — it’s truly taking all operating and defend capabilities all the way to the tactical edge.”

Hathaway noted that 400 headquarters personnel oversee three cyber wings with a combined force of more than 5,300 military and civilian members. The 67th Network Warfare Wing is the 24th’s operations arm, equipping forces to conduct network attack, defense and exploitation activities. The unit also handles network training, operations, tactics and management services for AFNetOps/CC and combatant CCs. The 688th Information Operations Wing gives the 24th its information, operations and engineering Infrastructure capabilities. The 689th Combat Communications Wing enables the 24th to extend critical network operations to the tactical edge.

The 24th’s full-time personnel force is complemented by an additional 10,000 reserve and guard troops. Yet Hathaway wishes he had more people available to work on a growing number of tasks created by increasing demands for cyber operations and services at home and globally. “It’s never enough,” he said.

In a time of expanding workloads and shrinking military budgets, Hathaway said he’s always on the lookout for ways of making his force more productive and efficient without lowering standards. “In this environment of declining budgets, we don’t expect to get additional resources,” he said.

Hathaway said increased automation in network operations and other areas will enable the 24th to “free people to do other things.” He also believes that automation also holds the key to creating improved network services and security. “We’re looking to automate a lot of our capabilities so that we can truly have situational awareness of what our networks look like, what’s going on on our networks, and how to defend them,” he said. Finding new ways to automate is a long-term effort that requires reaching out to experts, Hathaway said. “We partner with industry, academia...to capitalize on some of these new advantages,” he said.

Becoming a team player

The 24th is very much a team player with Cyber Command as well as its counterparts in other services, Hathaway said. “It’s driven by [U.S.] Cyber Command, but we certainly do interface routinely with the other components; with ARFORCYBER [Army Forces Cyber Command], MARFORCYBER [Marine Forces Cyberspace Command], and NAVCYBERFOR [Navy Cyber Forces],” he said.

Interservice cyber cooperation is being hindered by an often incompatible mix of disparate network technologies and topologies. It’s a situation that developed gradually over many years. “The networks started by everyone kind of building their own little piece of it,” Hathaway said. “All of that was built kind of hodgepodge...now we’re living with the aftermath, with all these pieces and parts that have been plugged together.” He notes that network standardization, if and when it ever comes about, is a process that will likely be managed by Cyber Command.

For now, Hathaway feels that a multi-level security-focused strategy-based network architecture will go a long way toward reducing network incompatibilities as well as enhancing reliability and security. Acquiring network components with an eye toward compatibility and secure availability will also make deployments faster and easier. “We should be procuring equipment so that it lends itself to being aware and discoverable,” he said.

As new online dangers emerge to threaten key national resources, the 24th increasingly finds itself supporting computer and network resources operated by non-military organizations inside and outside the government. “We....provide support through Cyber Command in support of [the] Homeland Security [Department] and the defense-industrial base,” Hathaway said. “We’ll lash up with them to make sure that we are protecting critical data that may reside outside of the traditional [Defense Department] space.”

Game plan

Hathaway agreed with the often-cited analogy that military cyber support, with its proactive and defensive aspects, is more like a soccer match than an American football game. “It’s not the offensive team or the defensive team playing; they’re both the field all the time,” he explained.

A former F16 pilot, Hathaway relishes the fact that he’s now finally managing a mission that isn’t entirely dependent on the laws of physics. “This [cyber] domain; we built it,” he said. “If we don’t like it, we can modify it.”

As the 24th continues building and refining its operational capabilities, Hathaway said he’s looking forward to discovering and trying out new technologies and ideas and being at least as imaginative and innovative as his craftiest cyber adversaries. “The potential to shape the space the way we want it is there,” he said.