Academy introduces computer and network security major

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Even as the Air Force Academy has reduced the number of majors it offers this year, it has instituted one new program aimed at helping the Air Force fly, fight and win in cyberspace.

The computer and network security major touches on topics designed to help cadets understand what the cyberspace domain is and how the Air Force will establish cyberspace superiority in future conflicts, said Dr. Martin Carlisle, the Computer Science Department head for the 2014-2015 academic year.

"The Air Force Academy is committed to producing highly-qualified officers to serve in cyber career fields," he said. "This is a time when the Academy is reducing majors, which shows how important we think this mission field is."

The department is creating new classes for cadets majoring in computer network security, Carlisle said. One class will introduce cadets to software reverse engineering, which will let cadets analyze viruses and other malware to figure out how they operate. By knowing how a piece of malware works, experts can block it from their networks or even take out its command and control mechanisms.

Another class will focus on computer forensics.

"If a criminal or espionage act has occurred, we can figure out what the perpetrator did and how they did it," Carlisle said. "That allows us to build a chain of evidence."

Other classes in the program will include strategy, political science and law classes, Carlisle said. For example, the Academy's existing class on cyberspace law can help future legal officers advise commanders whether an enemy action in cyberspace constitutes an attack, Maj. Robert Palmer said in an interview in May.

"Cyber weapons don't always fit that (kinetic strike) model," Palmer said. "Does it count as a use of force if I use a zero-day exploit to enter an adversary's computer network? In the cyber realm, consequences are often far less identifiable and quantifiable."

Three juniors and about 25 sophomores are enrolled in the major, Carlisle said, and the curriculum is set up so cadets don't have to decide right away.

"In fall of their three-degree year, cadets will take Computer Science 210," he said. "They can think about which discipline might be best. They can go into any of our three majors without having to decide up front."

The three juniors -- Cadets 2nd Class Josh Hayden, Justin Niquette and Eric Wardner -- will be the first to graduate with the new majors when they enter the Air Force in a year and a half. Hayden said that computer and network security is the best fit for him of the three related majors that the Academy offers.

"I find it more interesting than the software development in computer science and more applicable than the computer hardware design in computer engineering," he said. "It incorporates more of what I hope to be doing in the operational Air Force as a cyberspace operations officer."

Niquette said he shifted from his original major of computer science because he wanted to learn how to keep adversaries out of critical systems.

"I like how computer science allows you to create something from nothing and solve everyday problems in a logical way," Niquette said. "However, I felt that the only way to create secure programs and systems is to have a strong understanding of both offensive and defensive aspects of cyber."