'Cutting Edge': DOD official says cyber, computer science majors advance security for US

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  • U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – One of the Defense Department’s top cyber warfare acquisition professionals said the work of computer science and cyber science majors at the U.S. Air Force Academy will pay future dividends in protecting the department’s vast computer network from bad actors.

“What you’re doing in understanding the cyber risk to the Air Force Academy mission is really cutting edge,” said John Garstka, Director for Cyber Warfare within the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Platform and Weapons Portfolio Management at the Pentagon on April 28. “You are using the same tools that we use to conduct Cyber Resiliency Wargames in support of the Combatant Commands.” The hour-long videoconference in the school’s security operations center featured conversation between Garstka; junior cadets Anna Little and Taylor Metzgar; Col. Harold Hoang, the installation’s chief information officer; Mike Andrews, chief technology officer; and Paul Rumpler, chief of network operations. “I’m really trying to use the academy as a lab for what works and what doesn’t,” he said.   

Garstka, a 1983 Distinguished Graduate of the Air Force Academy, oversees cybersecurity of weapon systems within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and is he also responsible for conducting capability portfolio management of Joint capabilities for Cyberspace Operations.  He pointed out that cyberspace is a contested operational environment – it is a domain of warfare.

He told the group that the Air and Space Force’s dependency on  modern IT applications requires cadets to understand the challenges associated with securing and defending an increasingly large range of application tools, including code, scripted languages and cloud-based networking that make up the cyber terrain that enables the combat power of the Joint Force.  Much of the cadets’ work and research in this area takes places in the cadet cyber operations squadron, a group of computer science and cyber science majors and their instructors performing mission essential tasks associated with cybersecurity for the Academy.

Little and Metzgar both said the quality of the Academy’s computer science and cyber science curriculum encourages cadets to think outside the box of traditional IT space. All cadets, they agreed, would benefit from the curriculum whether or not they remained in a cyber-based specialty as officers.  

“It’s not enough for computer people to know what’s going on,” Little said. “We need people thinking about strategy, security and innovative technology on every base and in every career field.”

Garstka said that the projects Little, Metzgar and other cadets in the cyber operations squadron work on for the DOD are helping them develop the knowledge and skills required to provide a defensive shield against pervasive cyber threats.

“I never thought we were cutting edge or further along than the rest of the Air Force, but it turns out the training I’ve had as a cadet goes beyond what many officers get and that training is invaluable,” Metzgar said. 

Little is excited about the effect the Academy’s computer science and cyber science department will continue to have on Air Force and Space Force operations.

“Mr. Garstka said that we are on the leading edge but I just see this as a start,” she said.

Little is a computer sciences major and Metzgar is a computer science and cyber science major.