Arkansas Air Guard trains cyber specialists to help meet ‘insatiable demand’

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 870 views 

The Arkansas Air National Guard now offers a cyber skills course to fast-track training in the cyber warfare career field and help close a talent gap in the U.S. Air Force.

In 2016, the National Guard announced plans to activate 13 new cyber units spread throughout 23 states by the end of fiscal year 2019. It’s part of an ongoing expansion of cyber specialists throughout the U.S. Department of Defense over the last few years.

The Cyber Ops Squadron of the 189th Airlift Wing, stationed at the Air Force base in Little Rock, is a designated unit for training officers in offensive and defensive cyber techniques. The squadron leads the Cyber Skills Validation Course, a seven-week class intended for individuals to prove and/or refresh their computer skills. Upon completion, students earn a cyber operator classification.

The course is now offered to active duty and reserve forces of the Air National Guard and Air Force members from the U.S.’s 50 states and territories. The option to offer the course to other members of the armed forces, in addition to Department of Defense civilians, is under discussion, said Lt. Col. Erik Polta.

“The Air National Guard is unique in the sense that many of its members serve in cyber positions during the week in the private sector,” Polta said. “They already possess many of the skillsets the military is seeking on the cyber front, so CSVC provides an accelerated method for getting them formally trained in cyber military operations. It doesn’t make sense to send someone with several years’ cyber experience in the private sector to a seven-month U.S. Air Force formal school, when we can top them off, validate their skillsets and complete that process in seven weeks here in Arkansas.”

The Cyber Ops Squadron began last summer, and its first 20 students graduated in March. The next class will graduate June 29, and there are four courses scheduled for the FY2018.

Twenty-nine military members and four contractors were performing double-duty last year to make the program come together. The unit was not given additional resources, money or manpower, for the first year. For FY2017, the squadron is formally active and budgeted for.

“Everything we’ve done so far we have done ‘out of hide,’ and we are truly leaning forward to get the mission done,” Polk said.

Placing the course in the care of the 189th Airlift Wing made financial sense for the Air Force, Capt. Scott Anderson, 189th Operations Group Detachment 1 director of operations, said in a March 29 press release from the Air National Guard.

“The Air National Guard had an existing secure facility, which made it the perfect location for a cyber mission,” Anderson said. “Additionally, with the infrastructure on Little Rock Air Force Base and its long history of training, it made perfect sense.”

In addition to the cyber school, Arkansas is also home to the 188th Wing at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith. The Wing is able to “execute strike capability across the full spectrum of conflict,” according to the 188th website. The three primary missions of the Wing are:
• Remotely Piloted Aircraft (MQ-9 Reaper);
• Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; and
• Targeting (space-focused).

Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Scott Rice called the military’s need for cyber troops “insatiable,” according to the press release.

“Each time we define the problem and figure out the solution. We’ve already figured out the demand is bigger than the problem we just solved. Opening the can of worms for one problem we find out five more. The depth of where we are going we haven’t even seen close to a limit of what it means,” Rice said.

For example, at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas there is a shortage of cyber trainers for the number of Air National Guard cyber units.

“There is a sufficient number of people that want to fill those slots, but an insufficient number of people who are training those individuals to do so,” U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said during a hearing on the National Guard last year, according to the release. “One of the new cyber squadrons at McConnell has 42 vacancies. I don’t think this is because we can’t find the individuals who want to fill those 42 vacancies. It’s because we only have three of those folks who are in a position to receive the training this fiscal year.”

Rice said the purpose of the training process is twofold.

“I want to be able to take a cyber warrior out of any technology company, put them into our work force and validate the skills they already have,” Rice said in the release. “I also want to be able to take young airmen just joining the guard and make them cyber warriors from day one. We should be able to adapt to both ends of that spectrum.”

After individuals complete the cyber skills course in Little Rock, from there they are sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., “to get the top off of cyber war training and then get them out the door,” Rice said in the release.

“We are really rapidly getting people based upon their capability and what they came in the door with, out the other end of the door faster and quicker. That’s a pretty innovative thing we are doing down there trying to ‘modulize’ our training and adapt it to individuals.”