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Hawaii Cyber Airmen Awarded For Aiding Community’s Critical Networks

  • Published
  • By Air Force Staff Sgt. John Linzmeier
  • 154th Wing

Three Airmen were presented with Achievement Medals on May 14, at Fort DeRussy for providing major enhancements to Hawaii National Guard’s cyber-response capabilities.

The small team of cyber analysts and operators was handpicked to start one of the nation’s first Cyber Mission Assurance Teams. This specialized mission assurance force supports critical infrastructure networks within the community.

Hawaii was one of three states to take on the national initiative through a National Guard Bureau pilot program, held from October 2018 through March 2020, including participation from Washington and Ohio National Guard.

“The Hawaii National Guard has been well known to be able to respond to any national disaster that comes our way,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Elijah Lincoln, Cyber Mission Assurance Team commander,” We do it for the Big Island lava flows, we do it for the hurricanes and we do it for COVID. But on the cyber side, that’s where we needed to ask ourselves, ‘what do we need to do if someone were to come out of nowhere and shut down critical infrastructure?’ You need to have a response, and that’s why we built that response team over those years.”

The 10 person CMAT, made up of HIANG Airmen from the 298th Support Squadron and 201st Combat Operations Squadron, and Soldiers from the Hawaii Army National Guard, volunteered to participate in this joint initiative under operational control of the Hawaii National Guard’s Joint Staff. The multi-service environment served as a collaborative hub where members could bring forward their unique cyber skillsets and determine new ways to merge their capabilities with other government and civil networks.

On the surface, the CMAT workspace looks reminiscent of a group of hackers in a Hollywood flick. But ironically, their main objective is to simply deny hackers from any opportunity to cause digital harm. Technicians can be seen sipping on caffeinated drinks, scrolling through computer screens spattered with digital traffic, and occasionally exclaiming the cliché, yet satisfying catchphrase, ‘I got em.’

While networking systems have become widely used in the digital age, everyday service entities such as schools, hospitals, police departments and private services are exposed to new forms of cyber threats. The possibility of an unexpected network breach can lead to a shutdown of operations or exploit sensitive data.

As a preventative force, Lincoln’s team spent their tenure in the CMAT surveying local network systems and becoming familiar with key personnel, policies, and equipment of external agencies. His team members, Staff Sgt. Marc Masuno and Staff Sgt. Isaac McMillan, were among the first guardsmen to develop standard operating procedures that members could immediately use as a reference and apply the necessary skills to prevent or alleviate cyber-attacks.

“When this all started out, we were fortunate enough to have a baseline of expertise between the Air and Army staff,” said Brig. Gen. Moses Kaoiwi Jr., Hawaii Army National Guard commander. “But at the same time, we had limited knowledge of exactly what we can and cannot do, and how we can most effectively communicate with other agencies. This was a lot to ask for from Capt. Lincoln and his team, but they did a remarkable job at navigating through this uncharted territory and laid down the foundation we needed to help protect our critical infrastructures.”

The CMAT team made groundbreaking progress in laying down networking capabilities with external agencies, starting with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and later on providing survey services for the Department of Transportation, including local airports and harbors.

Some of the skills and practices they developed are distributed to the Hawaii National Guard’s international allies through the State Partnership Program. During an exchange with the Indonesian Armed Forces in Jakarta, the joint staff demonstrated some of the CMAT’s network security advancements to enhance bilateral capabilities.

While the national CMAT pilot program officially wrapped up in 2020, Kaoiwi said the program’s developments are far too valuable to let go. Since then, Airmen and Soldiers have been participating in organic cyber training exercises to help maintain their networking competencies and continue to grow their skills alongside partners, including a cyber training activity that is slated to be held alongside the Arizona, California and Nevada National Guards later this month.