Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Schriever Sentinel

Dawn of the cyber operator

Commentary by Col. Michael Finn

50th Network Operations Group commander

The importance of information to decision makers at all levels is well known and well documented. Information, along with diplomacy, military strength and economics, is at the core of our national power. Information gives U.S. warfighters an unmatched advantage over our adversaries. However, until recently the interconnected systems that convey, process, and store information in support of national security and warfighting have been largely relegated to a support role. Cyberspace is a relatively recent term used to identify the domain created by these information systems and their connections. This new terminology also represents an acknowledgement of the need to put operational rigor into these systems.

Cyberspace capabilities have been increasingly accepted as both an asymmetrical advantage and as a high-valued target. On December 7, 2005 the Air Force added cyberspace to its mission statement in recognition of the domain’s importance to our ability to fly, fight and win. Subsequently, on August 18, 2009, the Air Force stood up the 24th Air Force as the numbered air force focused on building the capability to conduct full-spectrum cyber operations in support of joint warfighters. Almost one year ago, on April 30, 2010 the Air Force continued its commitment to operationalize cyberspace by formally establishing the 17D Cyberspace Operator career field. All existing 33S Communications and Information officers were instantaneously transferred from a support career field to a non-rated operations career field as cyber operators.

The birth of the 17D career field is a remarkable transition from a support centric mindset to an operational mindset…from troubleshooting to warfighting. Today’s newly minted cyber operators must shift their focus from the nets they operate to the missions they assure. Cyber operators are not only defined by what they do (NetOps, Net Defense, Net Exploitation, etc.), but also by their expertise in the cyber domain. Just as aviators must understand the physics and dynamics of flight such as Bernoulli, lift, drag and thrust, and just as space operators must understand Kepler and orbital mechanics, cyber operators must understand Shannon, Information Theory, and in the not-too-distant future, quantum computing.

The properties of cyberspace are significantly different than the other warfighting domains. Cyberspace is not a three-dimensional Euclidean space, nor do the laws of the physical world apply. Cyberspace is a man-made domain brought in to existence by the modulation of the electromagnetic spectrum for the purpose of transmitting, receiving, processing and storing information. Cyberspace only intersects with the other domains at the points where physical devices and communication paths are required to extend the cyber domain. Cyber operators must be able to grasp the complexity of their domain and they must be equally steeped in technical disciplines as well as operational art, to successfully exploit the domain in support of national and warfighting objectives. For cyber operators, there is no “cloud.” They see with precision and clarity all of the integrated systems and networks in their area of responsibility.

As the transformation from support to operations continues, cyber operators must keep perspective. The bulk of cyber operations exist to support other warfighting missions. Cyber operations must be focused on mission assurance. Flying the net, as we have done for two decades, is necessary but not sufficient. Cyber warriors must be able to fight the net in a contested environment and win in the domain by assuring combat effects for the warfighter reliant on information systems. In short, cyber operators must preserve our freedom of action in the cyber domain.

It is an exciting time to be part of a new era as cyber operators continue to bring distinct operational competency that will deliver unprecedented (and yet unimagined) capabilities in, through and from cyberspace. These extraordinary capabilities will make certain the U.S. Air Force will continue to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace well into the future.

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