16th Air Force Airmen, global partners enhance information warfare effects during Exercise Austere Challenge

  • Published
  • By Matthew McGovern
  • 16th Air Force
Sixteenth Air Force Airmen strengthened Information Warfare operation capabilities alongside U.S. European Command, NATO, component staff and combatant commanders during Exercise Austere Challenge March 4-14.

Exercise participants focused on enhancing coordination with combatant commands, command and control, and the integration of capabilities while counteracting adversary narratives in the information environment.    

“Austere Challenge allows us to posture cyber effects in a new way by enhancing the unity of effort in the cyber and ISR operations worldwide arena,” said Lt. Gen. Kevin Kennedy, 16th Air Force (Air Forces Cyber) commander. “In a global environment where peer competition uses non-kinetic effects and mis-information, exercises like Austere Challenge connect us with our other components while increasing our ability to integrate with our allies and partners to enable ‘reveal, conceal, expose, or disruption’ type of activities.”

Airmen from the 616th Operations Center ‘virtually’ provided cyber defense planning and security problem solving scenarios to exercise players in the U.S. and Europe—problem solving situations vital to understanding adversary attacks and effectively counteracting narratives.

Maj. Dawid Grzybowski, 616th OC Battle Captain, ensured the coordination of cyber products and provided intelligence and mission assessments to various leaders.

“General Kennedy trusts us to be the single voice of cyber across the globe and we’re the only ones poised to do that,” said Grzybowski. “We’re a unique organization given that we’re the only true global cyber operations center.”

Austere Challenge requires five different teams to have the same real-time information 24/7, allowing combatant commanders in other continents to make decisions.

Sixteenth Air Force shared IW data with U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. European Command and Joint Force Headquarters - Department of Defense Information Network during the exercise.

“[The exercise] facilitated synchronization and interoperability by allowing 16th Air Force to fully exercise their role as a cyber component, not only to USEUCOM, but to USSTRATCOM, as well,” said Candace Sanchez, 16th Air Force lead exercise planner. “It simultaneously precipitated realistic interaction with our higher headquarters, USCYBERCOM, on everything from authorities to timing and tempo of cyber ‘fires.'” 

Exercise cyber fires replicate “very realistic scenarios,” explained Sanchez.

According to Sanchez, the mock scenarios simulated cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, as well as information attacks via social media and traditional news outlets.

“Practicing how we assess vulnerabilities, protect and defend our information systems, and respond to and mitigate such attacks is of utmost importance to our 16th Air Force, AFCYBER and JFHQ-C (Air Force) missions,” said Sanchez.

Col. Darin Earnest, 16th Air Force Battle Staff Director, organized workflow between U.S. Air Forces in Europe and other various commands in the exercise battlespace.

“We have existing relationships with several combatant commands, but the exercise helped us practice the things we do every day in a crisis/conflict situation,” Earnest said. “It was also important to exercise the execution of specific authorities and to understand how command relationships affect operations during a conflict.”

Earnest explained how these vital relationships apply to NATO Alliance and global partners as well, “[Austere Challenge] allowed us to think through how we communicate with partners with whom we have less frequent day-to-day contact.”     

Streamlining communications and improving overall processes and procedures is the goal by the end of the exercise. Austere Challenge helps achieve 16th Air Force priorities of maturing information warfare and increasing combat effectiveness.   

“The exercise doesn’t end at ENDEX,” said Sanchez. “Rather, we now focus our attention on collecting and consolidating inputs from our staff participants that will lead to real world improvements of our overall processes and procedures for daily operations.”

The 16th Air Force, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, focuses on Information Warfare in the modern age. Information Warfare requires integrating Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance; Cyber Warfare; Electromagnetic Warfare; Weather; Public Affairs; and Information Operations capabilities.

Sixteenth Air Force ensures that the U.S. Air Force and Nation are fast, resilient and fully integrated in competition, crisis and conflict by incorporating Information Warfare at operational and tactical levels, capitalizing on the value of information by leading the charge for uniquely-21st century challenges in the highly dynamic, seamless and global information domain.