Air Force communications squadron redesignated for cyber defense mission
Recently, the 55th Air Force Communication Squadron was renamed the 55th Cyber Squadron. What does it mean? Well, on the one hand, that means the squadron is now responsible for the Air Force’s tactical cutting edge cyber defense operators. For what it means. Eric White of Federal News Network spoke with his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Wang,
Christophe Wong: The 55th Communications Squadron was the unit that provided computer support off the air base. Several years ago, we started using cyber weapon systems for the Air Force, one of which was the Hunter Cyber Vulnerability Assessment Weapons System. They sent this system here so that we can start looking at cyber defense and mission assurance. And now the Fifth Wing actually has a cybermission system and a weapon system in the CVH. Where we grew up was that we had some major initiatives that were at the Air Force level. The first was to allocate our IT support to what we call enterprise IT as a service. It was essentially a matter of outsourcing IT support for the base. Because we were one of the main bases of this effort – there are seven bases of harm reduction effort, and we are one of the main bases – we are able to free airmen to conduct a workforce transformation and get our Airmen to start training in cyber defense and using this cyber weapon system.
Eric Blanc: And it’s that sort of thing that led to this new designation, a little change in mission and it looks like you’re all going to go a little bit more on offense than on defense.
Christophe Wong: So first, it was an Air Force Headquarters initiative to start delivering our mission systems across the Air Force. They appointed several Mission Defense Teams to solve this problem where nation states like Russia or China could attack our mission systems on their own, right. And so, when we talk about the cyberspace squadron, they issued a program active action directive, which allows units to explore force modernization, using this weapon system to fight bad guys. And so for us here, because we were able to free some of the bodies, we hope to mature with certainty that our Mission Defense Team will employ CVH and redesignate as a Cyber Squadron once we have met the initial operational capability requirements.
Eric Blanc: And you were able to do it during the COVID pandemic. I imagine that presented some of its challenges. Were there any special circumstances that you had to go through to achieve this, while not being able to speak face to face with all the people you need to do?
Christophe Wong: Yes, so by taking command, every commander dreams of having their ceremony, meeting the unit and getting started on the mission. I did my ceremony in front of my family and a few key people and that’s it. It was very difficult from a leadership perspective. I met my operational flight commander two months after taking up my post, and then another flight director about six months later. So it was different. However, I believe that with every crisis comes an opportunity. And so because the unit was in transition to telecommuting, there was a lot of fluctuation in our staff alignment. We took advantage of it and used a churn. And what we did was provide advice to my leaders, who are phenomenal individuals. And we’ve basically thrown all the pieces of the puzzle in the air. And as they come back down and people start coming back from COVID, they land in a new unit. And so it was advantageous from that point of view. It wasn’t a daily, you know, steady-state mission that we’re running, that we’re trying to make this change through. We were already changing. And that actually helped us a bit, I think. And then the ground level aviators, they were phenomenal and grew where they’re planted for a few months. Some of them didn’t even know who their supervisor was, but it ended up going well, and now we’re rocking as a cybersec squadron.
Eric Blanc: We speak with Lt. Col. Christopher Wong, he is the commander of the 55th Communication Squadron now known as the 55th Cyber Squadron. Yes, that’s pretty important to know for your bosses, especially in the military. I wanted to ask you, what do you see now as the main mission of the squadron, now that everything is sort of sorted out, the dust has kind of settled? You know, what do you think is the most important goal on a daily basis?
Christophe Wong: Yes. So one of the things that I immediately changed to take command was our vision. And part of that vision is to become a team of war-ready or combat-ready aviators. Our goal is to compete with Russia and China competing today. This is really our mission. Well, what does that mean, right? What this means specifically for the Cyber Squadron is to be able to execute Converged Information Warfare. This means that we have the ability to fight in the information environment, collaborate and team up with other partners in space to win against the bad guys. This is our main goal. The unique approach we had in the 55th Cyberspace Squadron is that we apply a hybrid approach. By that I mean there is a lot of talk about the suffering of IT support and then the cyber defense side of war. But from my perspective, it’s one in the same fight. You are both in the information environment, one of them happens to have a different role, but that could be an advantage. So one of the vignettes or what-if scenarios that I kind of provide to my airmen and people I’m talking to is, you know, you watch the movie 300, right? You have 300 Spartans fighting 10,000 Persians. And you would ask them how they last so long? Well, first of all, they were very competent fighters. They were extremely good at what they did. But the other cool part was that they were using the terrain to their advantage. They were in this crevasse in the perfect location, which increased their ability to defend themselves against all these Persians. Now the scenario that I then throw in front of people is, hey, what happens when you put those 300 Spartans in the middle of a cornfield in Nebraska or Iowa, where are we at? You would have to fight the fight slightly different. Well how do you earn? Oh, most people would say we could practice better. Well, they’re already pretty well trained. You could increase your abilities like, I throw a spear, it splits into 10, I hit 10 people at a time. You can recruit the locals and train them, like gaining more strength. But all of this is really resource intensive, isn’t it? So my take is what’s going on, we hauled these mountains to Greece and then put them down temporarily in the middle of the cornfield of Nebraska. Well, this is a bit of a strange situation. Well, we live in the information environment, and it’s very dynamic and agile, isn’t it? So who would be the person who would do this? Well that would be our IT support, the engineers who operate and maintain these networks, which is our battlespace, what we want to do is partner with them to put our defenders in the best possible advantage against the enemy, then work together. It’s kind of why we’re very unique here in this squadron, in this unit, it’s this particular approach. Our IT support is very effective in designing solutions and capabilities for use by our advocates. They also manipulate the terrain in a way that is beneficial to our defenders. But on the other hand, our defenders are great at examining the threat and then countering it with whatever capabilities they have. So that’s kind of where we are now. So with this we are able to perform information warfare conversions.
Tom Temin: Lt. Col. Christopher Wong is the commander of the Air Force’s 55th Cyber Squadron and speaks with Eric White of Federal News Network.