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Forging Ahead in Cyberspace: Empowering Airmen in a Post-COVID 19 World

  • Published
  • By Capt. Alan Friedlander
  • 960th Cyberspace Wing

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. -- Before the COVID-19 pandemic began infiltrating every aspect of American life, the 51st Network Operations Squadron was formulating a strategy designed to harness the innate talents of its Cyber Warriors and emerge from the crisis stronger, faster and more capable than ever.

As a guardian of the Air Force Information Network, the 51st NOS’ mission is to develop and empower Reserve Citizen Airmen to assure global operations through cyberspace. This is a feat made possible by the squadron’s four flights: Enterprise Services, Vulnerability Management, Network Protection and Weapons & Tactics. In any given month, the 51st NOS convenes its forces to employ the Cyber Security Control System’s capabilities and execute U.S. Cyber Command taskings across several mission sets.

When social distancing guidelines were introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19, 51st NOS leadership quickly implemented contingency plans structured to acclimate their Airmen to a new cyber paradigm, resulting in the unit’s first virtual unit training assembly April 4-5.

Serving at the helm of this virtual UTA was 51st NOS Commander, Lt. Col. Mike Stucki, who said he was keen to emphasize the uniqueness and importance of this project.

“When I joined the Cyber Wolves in November, I never could have imagined we would be where we are today, but I am optimistic and excited about this opportunity,” Stucki said. “This does not change our mission of being operationally-focused Citizen Airmen delivering cyber capabilities globally. If anything, these events only intensify the need even more so. We are going to take this opportunity to get ahead in our ability to assist remotely and showcase what we have to offer to our Active Duty teammates.”

Squadron members responded in kind by providing valuable inputs based on their perspectives as cyber operators, narrowing the focus to career field-specific skill development activities such as real-world application of offensive and defensive cyber tactics and network configuration of mission critical devices.

Ultimately, the hours of phone calls, video conferences, feedback solicited and products built paid off. At the inception of the virtual UTA, custom-tailored plans that had been aligned with each member’s educational and professional paths were executed with impressive results. Most notably, Airmen led training on topics representing the spectrum of cyber operations, from penetration testing and analysis of enemy tactics, techniques and procedures to ensuring security of mobile devices in light of vulnerabilities discovered in 4G and 5G networks.  

Innovations in civilian training platforms were also examined in-depth, with an emphasis on their relevance to emerging opportunities and challenges in the cyber career field. 

Similar to prior UTAs, ancillary training was accomplished to great effect. In addition, weapon system crew position reviews were made easier via the flight leaderships’ new ability to virtually and continuously communicate, mentor and conduct oversight of their Airmen.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is relegated to the history books, the relationships built, sheer force of will and human potential unlocked by the 51st NOS’ cyber professionals will have endured. 

Chief Master Sgt. James White, 51st NOS superintendent and architect of the virtual UTA model, said he foresees expanded collaborations of this sort in the future. 

“Most of our members already operate in a remote capacity with their civilian employers, so coordinating virtually only made sense,” White said. “In addition, our squadron is comprised of top subject matter experts in the cyber community. Having this virtual platform for growth and sharing has not only increased our cyber capabilities, it has provided an excellent opportunity to personally engage with members on a one-on-one basis, create individualized training and address the needs of every member like never before. Our unit operates with far greater cohesiveness and sharing than it ever has.”

Most importantly, throughout the virtual UTA, a sense of community was ever-present among these proud members of the Air Force Reserve family, complimented by a steely resolve to rise above temporary adversity and continue striving to realize the 51st NOS’ vision: to further American interests around the globe by enabling a broader, deeper understanding of the cyber battlespace.