The Essence of USAFA: Focusing on air, space, cyberspace

04/29/2014 -- U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: This is part two of an eight-part series detailing the essence of the Academy. 

The Air Force Mission is to "Fly, Fight and Win...in Air, Space and Cyberspace." 

For some, that mission alone is enough to take up a profession of arms unlike any other in the world -- and at the Air Force's Academy, cadets embark on a four-year journey to find exactly what that means.

The "Essence of USAFA -- or what's left when everything else is taken away -- is a reminder of why the Academy exists. It just so happens the second pillar of the Academy's Essence is the focus of the Air Force Mission in Air, Space and Cyberspace.

Air
The Academy's airmanship programs, under the direction of Air Education and Training Command and the commandant of cadets, provide a series of flying and parachuting experiences integrating critical aspects of Air Force aviation heritage and present-day Air Force flying operations.

As the U.S.'s premier institution for producing Air Force aviators, with nearly 50 percent of USAFA's graduating class becoming pilots, it's no surprise the Academy continues to excel in aviation and aerospace.

In February, USAFA cadets claimed their 27th straight National Intercollegiate Flying Association competition.

"Not only did the team demonstrate precision flying skills, it represented the Air Force through sportsmanship and professionalism," said Cadet 1st Class Stewart Harlow, during a February interview. 

To expand Airmanship opportunities, the Academy recently implemented a new class that offers fourth class cadets the opportunity to explore aviation earlier in their academic career.

"With the development of AM-250, we are making the airmanship experience available to all fourth class cadets," said Capt. James Trimble, AM-250 program manager. "In addition to the flying experience, cadets also get time with our rated officer staff, where they learn about the different aircraft the Air Force operates and hear first-hand what it's like to be an Air Force aviator."

Space
The Academy has several departments and research centers educating cadets about space operations, acquisition, research and policy. A number of space-specific courses are offered through the Physics Department and four physics research centers focus on the essence of the Air Force space mission through various programs, such as the Falcon Telescope Network.

The FTN recently gained new global partnerships when researchers at the Academy's Department of Physics Center for Space Situational Awareness Research established Falcon telescope observatories at the Otero Junior College campus in La Junta and the Mamalluca Observatory in Vicuna, Chile, to research satellites operations and space objects, said Physics professor Dr. Francis Chun.

"The FTN will eventually consist of 12 telescope observatories worldwide with additional sites in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Australia, South Africa and Europe," he said. "The experience and learning cadets gain in space situational awareness will set them apart with the foundation to understand how we operate in space and how we maintain awareness of potential space threats."

The FalconSAT program here continues to reach new milestones. Cadets in the program recently tested the FalconSAT-6 structural and power systems design, and FalconSAT-3 is still in operation more than seven years after launch. 

"FalconSAT-6 begins assembly this summer and should launch in 2016, demonstrating innovative propulsion technology and satellite subsystems that will affect how we build and fly military satellites in the future and understand the space environment," said Col. Marty France, head of the Astronautics Department.

The FalconSAT programs take place within the Academy Space Systems Research Center and the Academy Space and Atmospheric Research Center and provide cadets the chance to design, analyze, build, test and operate small satellites for Defense Department space missions. 

Cadets also earn about the space acquisition process, France said.

"Cadets who experience the FalconSAT program go directly into space operations, research and development activities, and large-scale acquisition programs with real world experience no other undergraduate institution in the world can duplicate," he said.

Cyberspace
The Academy now offers a new Computer and Network Security major, where cadets learn about the specific capabilities and vulnerabilities of systems and how they can best use that knowledge.

Col. David Gibson, head of the Computer Science Department here, said the graduating Class of 2017 will be the first class with normal graduates in the CNS major.

"However, we believe a small number of cadets in the Class of 2016 will be able to meet the requirements a year ahead of time and likely will be the first cadets to graduate with the CNS major two years from next month," he said.

Also within the Computer Science department are many programs related to cyber warfare and security adding to the "breadth and depth" of the Academy's curriculum.

One of these programs is the USAFA Cyber Competition Team. They recently took second place at the conclusion of the 14th annual National Security Agency inter-service Cyber Defense Exercise April 8 - 11. Over the past four years, the Academy has had two first place and two second place finishes. 

"A distinguishing feature of the USAFA Cyber Competition Team is that they compete not only against other undergraduates, but also against teams of grad students and industry professionals from around the world," said Dr. Martin Carlisle, director of the Academy Center for Cyberspace Research. "The (team) is generally in the top 10-15 percent in these worldwide competitions.

"Success in these competitions requires keeping abreast of the latest research and developments," he continued. "For example, our most recent competition involved a challenge that required an understanding of the Heartbleed vulnerability that was just announced this month."

Since the nation's economic, military and industrial infrastructure is highly dependent on computer and network systems, it's critical for the Academy to develop future leaders who understand how to defend these systems, Gibson said.

"Additionally, offensive cyber operations can be a very attractive means for combatant commanders to achieve their military objectives," he said.

In a time of fiscal challenges and an ever-changing battlefield, it is important the Academy remains guided by the essence of what the Air Force expects from them, said Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson in March. 

This essence, Johnson said, will be preserved by following through and putting the institutional priorities into action.