Future cyber officers learn tactics in summer program

  • Published
  • By Katie Scott
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The introduction to the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Advanced Cyber Education program started with an unexpected demonstration: cracking a physical lock.

Dr. Barry Mullins, a professor within AFIT’s department of electrical and computer engineering, held up a combination lock, turned it to face the cadets, closed his eyes and then cracked it open.

“Dr. Mullins grabbed our attention from the start; seeing him break the combination lock so effortlessly blew my mind. It even scared me a little bit, since I’ve used those kinds of locks for years and assumed they were safe,” said Tilak Bhatnagar, a student in the ACE program and an incoming cyber officer with the U.S. Air Force. Mullins went on to explain that trying to hack into a computer system is similar to cracking a traditional door lock. By becoming familiar with the lock’s system – how to rotate it and what clicks to listen for – he was able to open it without a key in less than 10 seconds.

“That’s the focus of ACE,”said Bhatnagar. “We’re developing familiarity with computer systems in order to exploit them. By building experience with different programs and systems, we can break the digital ‘locks’ in computers – just like people have been breaking traditional locks for centuries.” AFIT’s Air Force Cyberspace Technical Center of Excellence and Center for Cyberspace Research’s annual ACE program is a four-week summer course targeted to Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets between their junior and senior years in college.

The objective of the ACE program is two-fold: to develop the next generation of cybersecurity leaders through an intense program that immerses undergraduate students in the cybersecurity discipline and to grow new cyber officers into future military leaders.

The 2020 ACE program was canceled due to COVID, but the AFIT team developed a virtual course for 2021 – a first for the program. This year, 45 cadets from a multitude of STEM degree programs from ROTC detachments across the United States participated. “It’s ironic that this program is virtual this year since we are studying cyber. It’s been educational to learn and see how AFIT organized their government network just to host us cadets,” said Zachary Harmeyer, a U.S. Army cadet attending the ACE program.

Harmeyer is a junior at Virginia Tech studying industrial and systems engineering with plans to work in the cyber field when he enters the military.

Students develop an understanding of information warfare, computer network defense, cryptology and software reverse engineering through on-line learning and hands-on cyber war exercises. In addition, cadets participate in cyber officer development days that focus on the study of cyber and its unique leadership challenges.

“It’s very rewarding to have a small part in educating the next generation of cyber warriors in our military,” said Dr. Timothy Lacey, AFIT adjunct assistant professor and ACE instructor. “Now, more than ever, we need men and women that understand the threats to our cyber capabilities, both militarily and commercially, and how to best respond to those threats.”

The program culminates in a Hackfest where teams of cadets race to break into each other’s networks. Bhatnagar and his team took first place in the Hackfest while  Harmeyer and his team came in second.

“It’s really interesting to put the pieces together of what we’ve learned in the past couple weeks. It’s been a really great learning experience. Collaborating with my team was essential for success and we were able to bounce ideas off each other,” said Harmeyer. “Hackfest was exciting because it was my first time trying offensive cyber operations – it was a unique opportunity to apply what we learned during ACE,” said Bhatnagar.

Bhatnagar commissioned into the Air Force as a second lieutenant in May and will enter active duty in early 2022 as a cyber officer. Participating in the ACE program allowed him to develop skills beyond the traditional software programming he learned in his undergraduate studies.

“When we made programs in college classes, we had to follow very specific requirements and provide very specific outputs. ACE required more creative and open-ended thinking,” said Bhatnagar. “This was the first time I feel like I’ve been able to get my hands dirty with cyber. I think it’s been a great preview of what the cyber domain will be like for me as a cyber officer.”

The ACE program covers a wide variety of cybersecurity related topics to develop original thinkers and technical leaders who can solve real-world cybersecurity problems.

The intent is for students to understand why cyberspace is a unique warfighting domain and develop an appreciation for why cyber dominance is a prerequisite for superiority in land, sea, air, space and now cyberspace.

“On the last day, it warmed my heart when a number of cadets agreed, that to date in their ROTC enrollment, the ACE experience was the best and most impactful,” said Maj. Angie Cox, AFIT military liaison for the cadets.

“I think having such knowledgeable instructors really helped. I was kind of new and inexperienced to all this when I came in, but they provided a lot of resources that we could use.” said Harmeyer.

Fellow student Bhatnagar agreed, adding that he “was absolutely blown away by the quality of the instructors.” “I would say programs like ACE are valuable for recruiting tech talent in the military, by exposing cadets to operational problem- solving even before they become officers.

 A lot of civilian computer science students intern at tech companies before they graduate, so cadets aspiring to go cyber should seek similar exposure with programs like ACE before they commission,” said Bhatnagar.

The benefits of the ACE program reach beyond the course for the cadets as they begin to develop their personal network of future colleagues. “Even though we’re virtual, that didn’t stop us from connecting with each other,” said Bhatnagar. “I know that I’m going to keep in touch with them for a long time.” Having graduated from the ACE program, Bhatnagar passed on what he learned by sharing his ACE experience with a group of Civil Air Patrol cadets in late August.

“One of my college computer science professors is actually the Cyber Education Officer for a local CAP unit. After telling him I’d commissioned, he asked me to come speak to his CAP cadets to share some insight into cyber ops. It was engaging to discuss ACE with the cadets, some of whom were aspiring cyber officers. ACE was a transformative experience, and a great start to getting involved in the military cyber domain,” said Bhatnagar.