The Air National Guard needs 400 cyberwarfare operators in the next two years, and future students of a new course at the Little Rock Air Force Base say it will help the Guard reach that goal as they soar to a “fighter pilot”-like status in their careers.
The course will teach students cybersecurity basics, offensive and defensive hacking, network security and otherwise add to skills they already have. Those skills could help them combat threats like the Russian hackers intelligence agencies say engaged in an online campaign to interfere with the recent presidential election.
“I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the state,” said Capt. Scott Anderson, who heads the school as its director of operations. “It falls right in line with a lot of the governor’s initiatives and state colleges that are getting involved in cyber and cybersecurity and even K-12 in regards to the STEM program, EAST.”
And it won’t cost Guardsmen anything to take the course because the National Guard Bureau is funding it, Anderson said.
The Air National Guard Cyber Skills Validation Course will see its first students Feb. 6 at a repurposed, secure facility at the LRAFB in Jacksonville.
The students will be Guardsmen who have already acquired some information technology or cybersecurity skills from a job or school, or have taught themselves those skills. Twenty will be taught by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Anderson said those who graduate from the course will gain a waiver from the cyberwarfare operator functional area manager at the National Guard Bureau. The waiver means they won’t be required to attend a 7-month-long school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, to become cyberwarfare operators.
The Guardsmen who enroll will have virtual workstations, although the course has non-virtual elements, like switches, routers and servers, Anderson said.
He explained the equipment this way:
Each workstation is a computer with software that runs several virtual computers that can be used independently or together. The course has two servers running more than 300 virtual computers that can be accessed and configured differently. Different types of software or operating systems can be loaded into them.
The different virtual systems comprise a network or multiple networks, and students will navigate these to find vulnerabilities and exploit them.
The students will be taught in a laboratory environment and through exercises, Anderson said. They’ll use their workstations to try to access virtual computers, virtual systems and virtual servers. They may also form teams, with one group protecting the virtual computer, system or server and the other trying to hack into it, he said.
Although the school’s annual budget hasn’t been finalized and Anderson declined to disclose a ballpark figure, he said the base had spent about $3 million in the past few months on equipment, contract instructors, minor facility adjustments, furniture and other items it needs to open.
The staff will consist of 27 military positions, and 14 of those will be full time, Anderson said, although whether those positions will be permanent will be determined next year.
Master Sgt. Les Coffman, who plans to enroll in the course, has been serving in the Guard for 21 years as a communications system administrator and network administrator. He said the school is much-needed because the best option available to Arkansas Guardsmen right now is the active-duty school at Keesler Air Force Base, which has 90 seats every fiscal year for Guardsmen.
He said that school can produce only 180 Guard graduates in the next two fiscal years. That’s less than half the number the Guard needs.
Anderson added that the new school will also help the Guard comply with the National Defense Authorization Act, which directs the Department of Defense to explore alternate cyber training options. “This school is going to be a tool for the National Guard Bureau to accelerate that training pipeline.”
The space being used for the cyber school had housed another technology-centered mission, an intelligence mission with drones that was moved to Fort Smith, and its repurposing saved taxpayer money from being spent on a new facility.
The new consolidated and accelerated course is also more family-friendly for Guardsmen like Master Sgt. Jacob Lambert, who has three children under the age of 7 and didn’t want to move his family to Mississippi. He enlisted in 2000 and is helping set up the school where he plans to be a student.
Anderson believes the school will help recruit people into the Guard and lead to new partnerships with civilian companies and local government agencies.
Coffman and Lambert agreed. They said advancing their cybersecurity careers with the course is a step toward becoming the “fighter pilots” in that career field. The two explained that the cyberwarfare jobs would earn them the kind of peer respect afforded to top guns in the cockpit.
Coffman added that he’s excited to be a student because he’ll “get to go from being a geek to uber geek.”
He also said other countries are training people in similar skills.
While Russia as a cyber threat has dominated the news lately, the U.S. should also be wary of China, which Time magazine called its biggest cyber threat in 2015.
The nation also faces cyber threats from North Korea and Iran, U.S. News reported in September.
The article, “America is losing the the cyber war,” lists among recent successful cyberattacks the Chinese military’s theft of U.S. plans for an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane and its creation of a copycat J-31. Iranian hackers were charged last year with attacks on U.S. banks and a dam in New York, and North Korean hacked damaging emails from Sony as the company prepared to release a comedy unflattering to the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“When it comes to the IT world, security and cybersecurity is probably the hottest topic out there right now,” Coffman said. “You can just look at the news today. … It’s really the evolution of stuff that we have to work on.”