In this daily deluge of information that shapes our American way of life, we continue to see headline after headline of cyberattacks affecting our trusted government agencies, commercial corporations — large and small — and in some cases, our very own personal data.
In fact, in 2017 alone, the Center for Strategic and International Studies lists dozens of examples of such cyberattacks, including a Russian operation to send malicious spear-phishing messages to more than 10,000 Twitter users in our Defense Department; a ransomware campaign that spread to 99 countries; denial-of-service attacks widely attributed to North Korea that targeted media, financial, aerospace and critical infrastructure organizations; and the Equifax data breach that revealed the Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information of more than 143 million Americans.
In 1984, I enlisted in the United States military and have had the privilege to wear the uniform ever since. After completing my bachelor’s degree in computer science, I’ve spent most of my 33-year career in positions that have allowed me to witness firsthand the advances of the digital age and the wholesale evolution of cyberspace. And I can say they’ve completely transformed our American way of warfare and our American way of life. From my first technical assignment as a software programmer in 1990 to my current position as deputy commander of Air Force Space Command, a 36,000-person organization responsible for providing mission-ready space and cyberspace forces for the nation, I’ve seen the exponential growth of our dependence on cyberspace and the way cyberspace can improve military lethality.
Today, relentless cyberattacks continue to demonstrate how cyberspace has truly become a warfighting domain. And since we, as a nation, have become so reliant on cyberspace, it is absolutely critical that we defend this domain just like we defend the air, land, sea and space.
From my vantage point, we (your nation’s Air Force) must also be relentless and continually ask the question: How do we outpace our adversaries and increase the lethality and readiness of our Airmen to protect our networks and critical infrastructure, which are absolutely fundamental to defending our nation, our allies and our interests around the globe?
To tackle this challenge, our Air Force recently implemented numerous efforts to defend our Department of Defense (DoD) networks, which ultimately enable our joint warfighters on the battlefield. At the enterprise level, we have hardened our cyberspace perimeter, collapsed hundreds of networks into one defendable Air Force network and built defensive maneuver forces able to quickly posture against emerging threats.
In our Air Force cyber squadrons, we are completely shifting our focus to a warfighting perspective, changing our culture one Airman at a time with the support and leadership of our commanders at all levels. Prior to this change, our cyber Airmen spent most of their workday operating and maintaining information technology (IT) infrastructure. Today, we are ensuring our cyber warriors are not only trained and equipped to defend our networks, but that they are providing our commanders with critical information regarding potential threats, indications or warnings their missions may face as well as operational options in the cyberspace domain. Our Airmen are now thinking like warfighters and working to ensure we are ready to fight and win against any threat.
We are also collaborating with our industry partners to leverage their vast expertise and experience to use the latest technology and applications to strengthen our networks. These partnerships enable our cyber Airmen to move away from IT service delivery and instead hone their warfighting focus on active cyberspace mission defense and assurance.
Last year, we teamed with information security specialists from around the world through our “Hack the Air Force” programs. These programs are designed to better secure our internet presence by capitalizing on the skills of private sector, independent and government experts to assess our vulnerabilities, find ways to fix them and strengthen our networks against potential adversaries.
In addition, many of our cyberspace Airmen are directly supporting U.S. Cyber Command as part of the 133 Cyber Mission Force teams. These teams, which began forming in 2013, are scheduled to be fully operational by the end of June 2018. They support a number of critical missions, including blocking adversary attacks and maneuvering to defeat them, protecting DoD information networks and priority missions, and preparing cyber forces for combat.
These key initiatives — the Cyber Mission Force teams, partnerships with industry and our refocus to a warfighting mindset — are just some of our ongoing efforts in the Air Force. We will continue to innovate and develop ways to strengthen our cyberspace defenses, such as reporting our progress through the DoD Cybersecurity Scorecard and providing the most highly trained, lethal forces on the battlefield.
As our nation’s livelihood and national defense continue to expand and exploit the cyberspace domain, rest assured — your Airmen are serving 24/7 around the globe to defend the air, space and cyberspace domains and, ultimately, our American way of life. Your Air Force will continue to answer the Nation’s call.
• Maj. Gen. Robert J. Skinner is Deputy Commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Prior to his current position, he held several positions at Fort Meade, Maryland, including Deputy Commander of the Joint Force Headquarters Department of Defense Information Networks.