Boxing lessons for the cyber realm

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  • By Jeff Holmquist
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When Col. Jaak Tarien graduated from the U.S. States Air Force Academy as a member of the Class of 1998, he never envisioned becoming a world-renowned expert on cyber security.

Yet when he returns for his 20th class reunion this weekend, Tarien has a brand new promotion to brag about -- commander of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.

“My roommate during my last two years at the Academy was a computer science major,” Tarien laughs. “Now he’s a B-1 pilot and I’m the computer guy.”

An international exchange student while at the Academy, Tarien was among the first Estonian nationals to attend a service academy. The former Soviet-bloc country was recognized as an independent country in 1991 and Russian troops withdrew from Estonia in 1994.

That’s when service academy slots opened for members of the newly organized Estonian military, and Tarien -- a second-year university law student at the time --landed an Academy appointment.

“We had our country back,” Tarien remembers. “I wanted to do something for my country. I wanted to help.”

He admits his "Doolie" year at the Academy was challenging, because his English skills were lacking. He was able to persevere, however, and was eventually commissioned into the Estonian Air Force.

“The Estonian Air Force at that point was about 90 people,” he says. “They expected me to be the 'know all and be all,' so they actually put me in a major’s billet at headquarters.”

The Estonian Air Force had little equipment and no aircraft at that point. “We were starting from scratch,” Tarien notes.

His first major project was helping set up a radar network throughout Estonia. By 1999, Tarien had moved to Lithuania as a second lieutenant to help establish a three-nation (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) joint surveillance operation.

Two years later, he would return to Estonia as a wing commander for its national surveillance operations.

In 2004, Tarien came back to the U.S. to attend Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. His educational success would lead to a three-year assignment as the aide-de-camp for NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation command in Norfolk, Virginia.

After a brief assignment at Air Staff, Tarien would return to his homeland to become commander of the Estonian air force -- which had grown to about 450 personnel at that point.

“I was a 38-year-old lieutenant colonel at that point,” he laughs. “It was quite intimidating, walking into a room full of four-stars and three-stars at my first NATO air chiefs’ meeting.”

Several more senior NATO leaders took Tarien under their wings and gave him plenty of advice as he settled into his role.

Tarien would serve as Air Force commander from August 2012 to July 2018.

“Combat aviation is out of our financial reach,” Tarien says of the Estonian air force. “But we operate modern airfields. We have, on a rotational basis, a 24/7 presence of allied fighters and sometimes other aircraft on our airfields.”

As his time as Air Force commander came to a close, Tarien expressed an interest in taking over NATO CCDCOE.

“I am not a cyber expert,” he admits, “but on the other hand, I think everybody in today’s world is living a cyber life. You are affected by cyber everyday.”

Founded in 2008, the CCD COE is a cyber think tank with 21 member-nations.

The center was launched in the wake of the first documented and politically motivated cyber attack against an entire nation in 2007. Estonia’s cyber networks were compromised and brought the country’s economy to a halt.

“Our government officials traveled to NATO headquarters and said we are under attack, but there are no tanks rolling and there were no bombs dropping,” he recalls. “There was no concept among NATO nations of what a cyber attack means. It was all a very new thing.”

As a result of the attack, Estonia pledged to focus on cyber security and invited other nations to take part. That cooperative spirit led to the CCD COE.

“You would think that after the cyber attacks, we would have considered reducing our reliance on cyber,” he says. “It would have been real easy to kind of turn back the clock, but nobody made a case for that. We decided we just needed to make our systems so secure that we were not afraid of cyber attacks any more. I’m proud of my nation for taking this kind of approach.”

Today, the CCD COE is dedicated to research, training and cyber exercises. It touts expertise in technology, strategy, operations and law related to cyber security. The center hosts two major international events each year -- the Conference on Cyber Conflict and the live cyber defense exercise Locked Shields.

In addition, the center is responsible for the Tallinn Manual 2.0, the definitive guide on cyber operations and how international law applies.

“Our niche is to be the hub of cooperation among the nations,” Tarien says. “We are striving to be the champions of cooperation that pulls together national expertise from military, academia and industry. We fuse it together and feed it back to the nations as products that make everybody better prepared in the modern battlefield.”

The organization also advances research in offensive cyber operations among member nations, Tarien adds.

“It’s kind of like what we all learned in boxing class at the Academy,” he explains. “No matter how good you are at defense, you need to know how to punch back. It’s the same thing with cyber. In order to be more resilient against cyber attacks, we need to know how they work.”

CCD COE is staffed and financed by member nations, which include Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Australia, Bulgaria, Denmark, Japan, Norway and Romania,and many others are also on the path of joining the Centre.

[Editor's note: This article is used with the permission of the U.S. Air Force Academy Association of Graduates.]