FORT MEADE, Md. – Maryland Air National Guard members recently completed a six-month activation in support of U.S. Cyber Command’s Cyber National Mission Force.
The 276th Cyberspace Operations Squadron handed over the responsibilities to the 175th Cyberspace Operations Squadron to continue to defend the United States against foreign adversaries under the 24th National Mission Team.
“The Maryland Airmen provide critical support against our nation’s most difficult problem sets in cyberspace,” said U.S. Navy Commander Eric Graewert. “They are in close, continuous contact with malicious cyber actors on a daily basis, working closely alongside the active joint force to defend the nation. Their time here is a great example of the role that our National Guard plays in strategic-level operations.”
The CNMF is U.S. Cyber Command’s joint force charged with defending the nation in cyberspace against malicious foreign cyber actors. It plans, directs and conducts full-spectrum cyberspace operations to disrupt, degrade and defeat foreign adversaries who target the United States and its allies. In 2016, Maryland cyber professionals from the 175th and 276th COS and the Delaware Air National Guard’s 166th COS began rotating through half-year activations to the 24 NMT.
“Just like our A-10s are aligned to mobilize and deploy, mission sets in cyber are no different,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jason Barrass, 175th Cyberspace Operations Group deputy commander. “As soon as we stood up the COS, we eventually became aligned with the 24 NMT and started mobilizing every 12 months.”
CNMF consists of multiple task forces aligned against any individual adversaries: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and emerging threats. Assigned members have expertise across the full spectrum of operations: defensive, offensive and information operations, with services still providing cyber protection and national mission teams to each task force.
“During our recent activation, our members conducted [more than] 255 tip-of-the spear cyberspace targeting and exploitation missions against two near-peer adversarial forces and helped streamline many processes,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Quinlan, 276th COS director of operations.
Quinlan praised the Airmen for work “above and beyond” expectations.
The 24 NMT is the only total-force entity with members from the active duty Air Force and Air National Guard who work together to achieve mission goals. In addition to the Maryland and Delaware Air National Guard units that rotate through six-month activations, the 341st COS, an active duty Air Force unit, is always present serving on the 24 NMT.
“The relationship we have built with the 341st COS is truly a partnership,” said Quinlan. “In addition to our operators and other folks that are part of the team that perform their assignments, we all fill various roles while activated for this mission. The leadership team is comprised of Airmen from each squadron, so our partnership is truly equal.”
Maryland Air National Guard members typically fill four roles: team lead, mission commander, interactive operator and cyber planner. This support has an extra benefit to 175th COG operators when it comes to being Always Ready, Always There.
“While we have people supporting the national mission team, we have access to understanding enemy best practices and access to cyberspace at large. All of that access makes us better cyber operators,” said Barrass. “We can utilize those skills here domestically, both to red teams and to understand our adversaries’ capabilities. That is cross-sharing where we have a defensive mission and an offensive mission, but if you understand the offensive mission, you can help better to defend.”
Senior Master Sgt. Arnold Yox, senior enlisted leader for the 276th COS, credits the “longevity” of Airmen who serve in the Air National Guard as a reason they have had continued success supporting the 24th NMT.
“In the Guard, you can have a 20-year career in the same unit, supporting the same mission, so we bring that level of experience and consistency within the same mission set,” said Yox. “You’re seeing the same faces every 12-18 months, so you know they will be back and you will see them again.”
The Airmen supporting this mission through the 24 NMT deliver cyber effects through the full spectrum of cyberspace operations. Although they are an offensive cyber unit, their specific mission is considered Defensive Cyber Operations Response Actions (DCO-RA).
“As an offensive unit, we deliver effects, we’re not just looking for effects that were perhaps used against us, so our specific mission is DCO-RA,” explained Yox. “We are actor-on-actor operators and our mission set is typically at the very low tactical level.”
The Cyber Mission Force, which CNMF is a part of, is projected to grow by 14 teams in the coming years, so Quinlan thinks the 175th COG is well-positioned for what is next.
“Cyber is the future, and our Airmen are at the center of tip-of-the-spear operations,” said Quinlan. “The future is also now, which is why it is important to be involved in this operation.”