Past, Present, Future; Academy Cyber Warfare

  • Published
  • By Leslie Finstein
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Teams around the nation battling in cyberspace sounds like the plot of a Hollywood summer blockbuster, but for a team of students at the Air Force Academy this week it's just class work.

Sponsored by the National Security Agency, the 11th Annual Cyber Defense Exercise took place April 18 -21, testing service academy cadets in the realm of cyberspace battle.
The Cyber Defense Exercise is an annual cyber security competition in which cadets from various military institutions design, build and defend computer networks against simulated intrusions by the National Security Agency's red cell aggressor team.

So who are these competitive and computer-savvy cadets? They are students of the Academy's cyber warfare program within the computer science major.

All cadets majoring in computer science graduate from the Academy with a foundation in programming, computer architecture, networks, operating systems, and information storage and retrieval. Those who choose to go into the realm of cyber warfare deepen their knowledge of cryptography, computer security and information warfare, and network security.

Computer security as a topic of study at the Academy grew in the late 90's early 2000's because "as it became more important to society, it became more important to us too," said Lt. Colonel Jeff Boleng, deputy head of the computer science department and 1991 graduate of the Academy.

In the late 1990's, the Academy began hosting visiting faculty from the NSA which according to Colonel Boleng led to greater focus on information assurance. By 2001, the NSA, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, came up with a recognition called "Centers for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education." That year, 2001, the Academy applied for and received this recognition becoming one of the first schools to receive that title.

"Formally, we dove headlong into cyber in 2001, receiving the NSA recognition and at the same time we developed a specialty track within computer science emphasis on information assurance," Boleng said.

So why study the dark side of technology?

"As people become more and more dependent on computers, automation, and information it becomes more of a natural target. With reliance [on technology] comes greater vulnerabilities which a lot of our adversaries are trying to exploit and we are trying to do the same thing to them," Boleng explained.

In 2006, the concentration shifted from information assurance to cyber warfare. Cadets in this program must take three specific classes; CS431 Cryptography, CS438 Computer Science and Information Warfare, and CS468 Network Security.

The Air Force Academy is not alone in its emphasis on the computer science and cyber warfare. Each of the major service academies have similar program. Faculty in each institution share ideas, host visiting NSA faculty and work often with each other and compete in the NSA cyber exercise.

About a year ago according to Col David S. "Hoot" Gibson, head of the computer science department, the U.S. Naval Academy contacted USAFA for information and guidance on setting up their own cyber warfare program.

"When the USNA was starting up their cyber program, colleagues from there contacted me for a description of how we are organized, our cyber curriculum, and how we mapped our curriculum to the NSA's Center of Academic Excellence program," explained Dr. Dino Schweitzer, Academy computer science professor.

At the Academy, there are at any time 80 students majoring in computer science and over 90% of them will choose the cyber warfare track.

According to Colonel Boleng, the Academy has always done a great job producing officers who are highly skilled computer scientists however we produce only 12 or 15 a year because half of the computer science majors go on to become pilots.

Starting this summer, more cadets than ever will have the opportunity to learn the basics of cyber warfare with the departments first ever summer cyber training program, Cyber 256. This 10 day course will be offered six times throughout the summer, training 90 cadets in total in hands on cyber warfare.

Colonel Boleng believes that the summer program will provide more cadets with cyber training which is good not just for the cadets themselves but for the Air Force. The Academy hopes to produce a greater population of officers who can be cyber warriors, able to attack enemy computer systems and understand the importance of those kinds of attacks. Officers who will recognize that bombs and planes are not the only way to stop an enemy.

From what Colonel Boleng and others in the department say, this decade old program will continue to grow as technology changes and envelopes more and more facets of life and war.