6th CS mission defense team protects MacDill from cyber threats

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Scott Warner
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

In 1909, a new warfighting domain was created with the U.S. Army’s purchase of the Wright Model A aircraft.

Back then, taking the fight to the air was unfamiliar and on the cutting edge of technology, but fast forward to today, the U.S. Department of Defense finds itself once again facing new and unfamiliar warfighting domains and now, there is a sense of urgency to be ready.  

“Up until two years ago, traditional communications squadrons were focused on information and technology (IT) support for their respective bases, but now, we’re taking a much stronger defensive posture in hardening our information and critical mission support systems such as MacDill’s KC-135 [Stratotanker aircraft],” said Tech. Sgt. Patrick Gildea, 6th Communications Squadron Mission Defense Team supervisor. “There are critical and mission essential base assets that need our protection now maybe more than ever and one of those mission essential assets is people.”

It is no secret that our peer-to-peer world powers are accelerating growth in their cyber communication systems and space programs. The Air Force must be ready to compete in the new war domains: information, cyberspace and space.

"Air Force core missions are cyber dependent, and the complexities and threats in this environment have grown exponentially," said Lt. Gen. William J. Bender, the Air Force Chief Information Dominance Officer and Chief Information Officer. "We are leaning forward to tailor the cyber force by leveraging industry partners and the joint information environment to perform basic IT services, thereby enabling Airmen to move away from a unitary focus on IT service delivery toward a holistic cyberspace approach that includes active mission defense and mission assurance."

The 6th CS protects the 6th Air Refueling Wing and 31 tenant mission partners including U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command information systems.

The Cyber Squadron Initiative enhances the capabilities of cyber Airmen and Guardians to defend, assure and optimize unit missions in, through and from cyberspace. It also deploys state-of-the-art applications to provide mission assurance to their base’s critical missions while mitigating risk.

“We’ve started shadowing other units and learning their jobs, capabilities, systems and vulnerabilities,” said Tech. Sgt. Ashley Thompson, the 6th CS noncommissioned officer in charge of the Mission Defense Team. “Any units involved with the KC-135, such as fuels and mission planning, we have had at-length conversations with in order to get a better understanding of what they actually do on a day-to-day basis and to find where they are vulnerable. Ultimately, we are trying to close loopholes and fix problems before they happen to prevent mission failure.”

In order to prevent cyber attacks, a page straight from The Art of War, a book dedicated to war strategy by military strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, is currently being used to flush out vulnerabilities: “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.”

“We created a ‘Red Cell’ to act as the adversary during exercises and to test the wing’s ability to fight through contested environments,” said Lt. Col. Justin Ellsworth, the 6th CS commander. “For the 6th Communications Squadron, starting with ‘red’ is our new approach to everything we do, from exercises to daily operations.”

Ellsworth went on to explain the wing cybersecurity office and wing inspection team have also created education programs to teach the base’s cyber liaisons and other members about threats in the cyberspace domain.

“Our adversaries are not waiting so neither can we,” Ellsworth said. “We must change the way we approach everything we do and embrace the chief of staff’s action orders.”

According to Purplesec Cyber Secruity, cybercrime is up 600% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and just in the last decade, malware (or malicious software) computer infections have risen from 12.4 million occurrences in 2009 to 812.7 million in 2018.

“Phishing and malware attempts are still most commonly done by email,” Thompson said. “Always use caution before opening hyperlinks and attachments in your emails from unknown or discreditable sources.” 

Thompson went on to add that people are still the greatest asset and vulnerability when it comes to cyber security and that little things, such as being vigilant with emails, goes a long way in ensuring the safety and security over people’s personal information.

While the cyberspace domain continues to evolve, the 6th CS Mission Defense Team stays committed to working around-the-clock to accelerate change in keeping the base information systems safe from adversarial cyber threats.