OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --
The 55th Communications Squadron recently met all objectives required by the Air Force’s Cyber Squadron Initiative and is seeking redesignation as the 55th Cyber Squadron.
The redesignation formally indicates the squadron is ready to conduct mission assurance and cyber defense for the RC-135 mission systems with their new Mission Defense Team while continuing to maintain their vital information technology support for the base.
“I’m so proud of the unit and our amazing Airmen,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Wong, 55 CS commander. “We have accomplished all of this through COVID, with a huge deployment burden and during the transition of 55th Wing operations from Offutt Air Force Base to Lincoln Airfield.”
For the unit’s Airmen, the redesignation means they are not only responsible for assuring the installation and RC-135’s communication infrastructure and information systems, but they are also able to proactively employ cyber defense against cyber threats and actors at the Air Force’s tactical edge.
“One of the major hurdles that we had to overcome was shifting our mindset from a maintenance to an operational perspective,” said 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Cruse, 55 CS Cyber Defense Flight commander. “No longer is our primary focus [only on] customer issues or general system maintenance, but instead we are thinking about ways to engage near-peer adversaries and how we defend our mission critical networks and infrastructure.”
A unit’s redesignation to a cyber squadron comes only after meeting four phases outlined by the Air Force in its Cyber Squadron Initiative Program Action Directive. These include transforming the unit’s current mission, organization, and personnel; declaring Initial Operating Capability on its new MDT mission; implementing Enterprise IT-as-a-Service; and having the wing commander recommend the redesignation to the unit’s major command.
“Due to some very unique circumstances here at Offutt, our squadron was in an advanced position, which enabled us to be a front running cyber squadron and MDT organization,” Wong said.
By transitioning a majority of its legacy mission with the implementation of EITaaS at Offutt starting in 2020, the unit had to mature its ability to execute mission assurance and cyber defense with its new MDT in order to meet all of its IOC requirements.
The unit underwent internal restructuring in the fall and winter of 2020. They have consolidated all battlespace activities under the new Information Technology Support Flight, defined a distinct Operation Support Flight and Cyber Defense Flight.
“We want to employ each individual’s technical expertise and talents to get after the mission set,” Wong said. “This will be key when we start engaging nation states as they will have to rely on those critical thinking abilities in order to plan, execute and operate in those environments.”
With EITaaS empowering the squadron’s workforce transformation, the Airmen in the 55 CS acquired and configured the Cyber Vulnerability Assessment/Hunter cyber weapon system for the RC-135 mission system, tweaked the unit’s manning document, built robust relationships, and developed unit specific defensive tactics, techniques and procedures.
“We had to put in place many new processes and procedures and completely change the way we do business, not just within the team but within our entire squadron,” Cruse said. “As for the operators, once things got moving along, they were fully bought in and on board. They had been working and waiting for so long to finally get connected to a system and apply their skills. Once we were able to make our first connection, it was game on for them.”
Early in the process, the unit focused heavily on building a robust operations training program and detailed tactical mission planning that paid off in the end.
“We’ve put more people through the initial qualification training and mission qualification training pipeline than any other squadron in the Air Force,” Wong said. “We’ve done most of that in just over the past four months and in fact, we’re looking to double that number here soon.”
As part of this redesignation the unit is further integrating itself into the wing’s operations environment. This includes allowing its Airmen access to the RC-135’s ground and airborne systems for the first time ever.
“One of our main tasks now is RC-135 mission assurance,” Wong said. “To that end we have established an officer exchange program with the 55th Operations Group and we’re now on the jet flying with them. All of these are major efforts help us get after RC-135 mission assurance.”
“Our cyber warriors are proving to the ops world that cyber deserves a seat at the table and plays a critical role in their missions,” Cruse added. “What this means for the wing is that we now have a robust capability and way to provide cyber defense forces to the fight and ensure the unique mission set of the RC-135 and its variants can provide their ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities to the nation.”
While the unit continues to adapt to its maturing mission set, the leadership team said this transition wouldn’t have been possible without an array of base agencies who support the 55th CS mission.
“We have a great relationship with all of our mission partners,” Wong said. “The reason all of this has worked is because we have a made a huge effort to build strong, positive relationships.”