U.S. Air Force Combat Command selected the Air National Guard’s training and education center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in East Tennessee for training Airmen to protect and defend the nation’s most advanced computerized weapon systems.
The I.G. Brown Training and Education Center is part of a recent and extensive, multi-unit effort to increase Air Combat Command’s Mission Defense Team cyber training with the inclusion of the campus, located just outside Knoxville.
“This is an exciting moment for TEC and its future as an agile, innovative, and resilient center of learning for the total Air Force and the National Guard Bureau,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Kenneth Lozano, TEC commander. “We are expanding and growing at zero cost. This initiative is the result of a strategy to diversify TEC’s role today and into the future.”
About 20 students will undergo the pilot Mission Defense Team class this mid-August, which, if proved successful, expands to six, 20-student classes in 2021. There is a goal to graduate 1,000 students per year from the total Air Force, starting in FY23.
Air Combat Command is the primary force provider of combat airpower to America’s warfighting commands. Its vast array of missions, Airmen, and weapon systems include organizing, training, and equipping the greater Air Force’s MDTs in 84 global locations. MDT students include initial- and mid-career level enlisted Airmen tasked with safeguarding computerized weapon systems, such as the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft.
MDT training is part of the U.S. Air Force’s broader transition of how it approaches cyber, including transforming the role of Airmen in traditional communications squadrons from network services into cyber defense capability and outsourcing service capabilities with civilian entities. The shift moves Airmen toward the defense-side of cyber, officials said.
“Hopefully, this becomes a mutually beneficial capability for the total force,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Emmanuel Matos, the ACC Mission Assurance Branch chief assigned to the Cyberspace and Information Dominance Directorate, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.
Colonel Matos said the combined MDT effort leverages a National Guard asset with the potential to leverage industry, defense, and other educational opportunities in the local area to produce “premier critical thinkers.”
Officials said that TEC would provide the campus as well as the command and control for the schoolhouse under an experienced and well-established training and education structure. Many Airmen are acquainted with the campus through its enlisted professional military education center for NCO academy and Airman leadership school, the Lankford EPME Center.
TEC Deputy Commander, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Capra, is leading the effort with ACC and the supporting units. He believes that TEC’s regional location, base, and campus appeal from a dining facility and other support services co-located with a modern classroom and dormitory facility constructed in 2017. The base’s low per-diem rate, comparably, saves the Air Force an estimated $6 million for each year of training, once classes are fully operational. Other base assets include the 119th Cyber Operations Squadron, co-located with TEC and the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee National Guard, to include the Wing’s communications flight.
“We looked at what we needed to improve on campus to accommodate,” Colonel Capra said. “The biggest hurdle was ensuring the virtual classroom cyber environment the students will log into when they are here as the primary vehicle they will use for MDT.”
Cyber experts with the Wing’s communications flight, as well as the 119th COS, are helping ACC with alternate, flexible operation space as well as with connecting nodes to the current training site in Little Rock, Arkansas. This effort ensures continuous training should cyber equipment now being installed locally be unavailable.
Colonel Matos said that the idea of developing mission defense teams formed in 2015, and the Air Force began equipping MDTs with a version of the cyber-vulnerability assessment and hunting tool.
Earlier efforts involved multiple interests and directorates partnering together to include HQ Air Combat Command and the 39th Information Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field in Florida. The result was the Cyber-Protect and -Defend course for MDT Airmen. The first classes were held in Aug 2019 and have continued at the 223rd Cyberspace Operations Squadron at Little Rock AFB. To date, the current schoolhouse has trained 160 airmen for MDT missions across the world. At first, TEC will add to this capacity and eventually assume the entire anticipated throughput of 1,000 graduates per year.
“We knew that, as we started to grow, we would need more capacity,” Colonel Matos said. The addition of TEC allows ACC to leverage the investment at the Little Rock schoolhouse and leverage the National Guard Bureau’s existing facility at TEC, which allows for specialty training and removes the need for costly construction or refurbishment for training infrastructure.
Establishing equipment and connection for the student’s virtual cyber-range is the most substantial startup investment required, according to official estimates. ACC is working through the Defense Cybercrimes Center (DC3) to procure and install the cyber-range, and to certify instructors. It’s an initial $1.5 million to reach the 20-student capability in the pilot course. Plans include transitioning a vast majority of MDT training to TEC during 2022. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a determining factor in the schedule.
Colonel Matos said that they also hope to build partnerships with institutions located in East Tennessee and the broader area – universities, national laboratories, cyber centers, defense/research facilities are within a day’s drive. “So we hope that, as we keep growing this capacity, we can leverage some of those organic capabilities to develop and refine cadre and our capability.”
Colonel Matos said that MDT is more about teaching a mindset than teaching a tool. Cyber defense is continuously evolving, as you can teach something today, and the following day the technique is circumnavigated. “So you want to prepare Airmen for a skillset of thinking about problems of innovating very quickly to adapt and overcome challenges because adversaries are always looking for ways to exploit.”
“With the baseline training for Airmen coming out of TEC, we can leverage ACC’s existing schoolhouse, which has been excellent at curriculum design, and continues to produce new content as that emerging curriculum factory and that specialized training,” Colonel Matos said.
(By U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith)