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910th Communications Squadron preps for digital defense

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Grossi
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

In the modern age, it isn’t easy to remain current and qualified facing the demands of cybersecurity, but the 910th Communications Squadron is rising to that challenge. Their strategy? Recruiting and training Reserve Citizen Airmen for a Mission Defense Team (MDT).

MDTs are made up of individuals who have been assigned the mission of defending weapon systems in cyberspace, said Master Sgt. Jared Shuman, NCOIC of the 910th MDT. They are at the tactical edge as defenders of the United States Air Force’s weapon systems platforms. They communicate risk to Wing commanders for each weapon system mission operation to provide mission assurance. They also need to continue operating in a contested cyberspace environment. MDT members will achieve this by performing five core functions: Identity, protect, detect, respond and recover.

Tech. Sgt. Scott Ranostay, a cyber-security analyst and MDT team member for the 910th CS said, “Our role here is to set up a Cyber Vulnerably Assessment and Hunt (CVA-H) weapon system in order to sniff out traffic and look for potential vulnerabilities and cyber-attacks on the network. We are looking to be in constant contact with other forces, like hackers, who intend on doing illegal and potentially harmful things to the network.”

There are a number of tools hackers can use in attempts to attack DoD and civilian systems; malware, software that is specifically designed to disrupt, damage or gain unauthorized access to a computer system; various phishing techniques that use legitimate links to “hook” into the network of a user who has taken the bait; and zero-day exploits, vulnerabilities in software/hardware that is overlooked by its developers. Without proper vigilance and guardianship, those systems can become quite vulnerable.

One of the things CVA-H allows MDTs to do is monitor network traffic in real-time, said Tech. Sgt. Lawrence Mulder, a communication-computer systems operator and MDT team member for the 910th CS. Team members are able to establish a baseline for normal network traffic and then track down any pattern outside of the norm and up-channel the findings that may result in a counter-strike or further defensive posturing.

YARS first gained experience with MDTs in 2016 in Germany while serving on annual tour with a pathfinder unit—the initial field trials for the MDT mission—from Rammstein AFB.

“Rammstein has the largest CS in the Air Force, and it all started with our guys going over there to help out and reduce the workload,” said Shuman. “One thousand plus ticket queues and we had knocked it out in less than 15 days. That morphed into, ‘hey, you’re now a pathfinder unit.’ So it’s been beneficial on both sides. We smashed the cliché of a reserve unit where we have expertise from the civilian sector and matched a lot of the skills required.”

Since then, 910th CS has returned to receive training and assist its active duty service members in Germany for three additional ATs.

Although the official launch of the YARS MDT is slated for after fiscal year 2020, more than 15 910th CS Reserve Citizen Airmen have already begun building and training on the digital battle stations they will man to protect and defend the 910th mission and its weapon systems.

The road to forming a solid MDT is no easy one. There are more than 100 training hours that aspiring MDT team members go through to familiarize themselves with toolsets, and equipment as well as to stay current and qualified on the various attacks and vulnerabilities.

“I’m just over half-way done with all my MDT training,” said Senior Airman Ben Esterly, a cyber-systems operations technician with 910th CS. “I started back in April along with my (Career Development Courses), but it takes a lot of time and practice to get familiar with how to use all the tools and set up all the equipment. It takes well over 100 hours.”

Esterly said he first became interested in cybersecurity because he recognized that computers and technology are only going to get bigger and better in the future.

“Everyone has a cell phone, everyone has a computer. The threats that cyber has are very real. Cybersecurity isn’t just for the military but for everyone in general. It’s going to be the way of the future.”

Recognizing that, the commander of 910th CS, Maj. Russell Whitlock, said their biggest priority is completing the initial qualification training for all MDT team members.

“That needs to be the first arrow in our quiver,” said Whitlock.

The 910th Airlift Wing is hard at work to accomplish that task.