As one of Air Combat Command’s integral assets, the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing is home to several types of cyberspace warriors, including the exploitation analysts (EA) of the 41st Intelligence Squadron.
The 70th ISRW is known in the cyber community as “America’s cryptologic wing,” being a premier source for the Defense Department’s information network fortification. One way the 70th ISRW received that accolade is through enhancing their 41st IS exploitation analysts with precise selection, testing and training.
“An exploitation analyst’s job is to defend the DOD information network, secure DOD data and mitigate risks to DOD missions against some of the nation’s hardest cyber threats,” said Tech. Sgt. James, a 41st IS cyber intelligence analyst. “Specifically, we provide actionable intelligence about nominated targets in order to provide effects in cyberspace and ensure our DOD’s freedom of maneuver within the cyber domain.”
Cyberspace warrior training is no easy task.
To become an EA, Airmen go through a rigorous and lengthy training process, said James. After Air Force basic training, Airmen spend 110 days learning the foundations of intelligence analysis at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.
“Those that show potential in the cyber realm are then nominated or selected for the Joint Cyber Analysis Course at Corry Station, Florida, where they receive instruction on a wide spectrum of cyber topics,” James said.
Before becoming fully operational, those selected must complete 600 hours and 15 courses in U.S. Cyber Command joint training. Airmen are then tested on 114 job qualification requirements, James said. Upon completion, they become Cyber National Mission Force qualified.
In addition to their military credentialing, EA Airmen are also given the opportunity to qualify with certifications in Cisco Certified Network Apprentice, Linux+, Security+, Network+ and others, like their civilian counterparts, James said.
“Our training requirements are difficult because of the nature of our mission,” he said. “Our squadron must build Cyber National Mission teams and national support teams in an era when our economy demands that we do more with less. We have to continually grow and learn to stay in stride with new technologies, developing tradecraft and emerging threat vectors.”
The exploitation analyst training flight at the 41st IS previously realized that even with all the training through CYBERCOM’s joint pipeline, it was not enough, said James. They had a zero percent acceptance rate to high-profile cyber network organizations for their EA Airmen.
“It became apparent that we needed more rigorous training in order to prepare analysts for the tough mission; thus, our internal EA training program was born,” James said.
Even though the program is still in its infancy, the increase in efficient and knowledgeable Airmen has been realized.
“Our program takes the foundational knowledge from [Joint Cyber Analysis Course], and the subject knowledge from the pipeline, and provides a tailored environment to challenge each individual analyst to leverage their unique bodies of knowledge and apply that knowledge to effectively conduct cyberspace maneuvers and achieve mission objectives,” said Master Sgt. Michael, a 41st IS cyber intelligence analyst. “This is the art of teaching tradecraft.”
Creating these types of cultural investments to improve Airmen’s readiness has begun to evolve the future of cyber Airmen at the 41st IS, said Michael.
To practice performing their duties, EA Airmen are provided transient training laboratories, individual lab kits, to utilize their knowledge. In each kit, Airmen receive a locally crafted portable desktop which can influence virtual machines and facilitate hands-on scenarios. This advances Airmen’s capabilities, Michael said.
The advanced mobile desktop training challenges each individual analyst in cyberspace maneuvers to achieve mission objectives. “This, of course, is a short-term measure,” James said.
The ideal, long-term goal is to have squadron, group and wing-owned labs and hardware that can all be leveraged to develop amazing training, rather than simply paying vendors, he said.
“Rather than relying so heavily on costly commercial training, our innovative in-house training has enabled our EAs to join the ranks of some of the best cyber professionals in the world, and take the fight to the most advanced and sophisticated cyber actors across the globe,” Michael said.
This one-on-one training has strengthened the unit’s comradery, he said. As a plus, it has also saved the unit approximately $80,000 in training.
“This training is pivotal in not only helping analysts reach the level they need to reach in order to pass the interview,” James said. “More importantly, it empowers EAs to be the best they can be to fight harder in our difficult mission space.”
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