Enhancing the Cyber Ecosystem at USAFA

With a planned new building focused solely on cyber, the U.S. Air Force Academy is poised to prepare cadets for important cyber careers while addressing strategic Air Force goals.

The federal government has recently included $30 million in military construction funds for a new cyber facility at the Academy. The building, which is in the design phase, would bring together each of the Academy’s cyber-related programs to increase the strength of its cyber ecosystem.

“A single facility will enable us to bring the various components of our cyber research and education enterprise under one roof. This will allow us to provide a world-class cyber education experience for our cadets by leveraging state-of-the-art research and design activities,” says Brig. Gen. Andy Armacost, dean of the faculty. “The new facility will also serve as a beacon for industry partnerships, which are critical to all elements of our cyber activities.”

The programs included in the planning are the Department of Computer and Cyber Sciences (DFCS), the Academy Center for Cyberspace Research (ACCR), AF CyberWorx and the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Innovation (CoI).

The United States Air Force Academy Endowment is charged with raising additional funds to expand and outfit the facility with state-of-the-art equipment. Senior leaders, faculty and cadets are excited by the possibilities of the new facility.

“The new building is critical to our ability to develop leaders in the dynamic technical environment,” says Col. David Caswell ’01, head of DFCS. “We already have phenomenal capabilities at USAFA. This new building will create a set of creative spaces that will become a learning laboratory where cadets can be immersed in the latest technology. In the planning stage, we’ll figure out things like how to create space where the latest robots are available, how to expand our ability to embed industry partners in our labs, and how to incorporate the latest and greatest information from the commercial space.”

Caswell and the entire cyber team envision work areas where cadets, professors and industry professionals can conduct design sprints and produce cutting-edge research.

For instance, a space could be dedicated to contain flight tests for unmanned aerial vehicles or other autonomous systems indoors in a GPS-denied environment. “It will open up the imagination. It will offer the ability to ask ‘what if?’” Caswell says.

Cyber at USAFA

In 2016, Air Force CyberWorx officially launched at the Academy as an Air Force entity focused on innovation in the technology space. CyberWorx aims to speed the delivery of capabilities to the warfighter through human-centered design, public partnering, rapid prototyping and testing. Leaders have executed more than a dozen projects for Air Force stakeholders including the transition of two technologies to industry partners.

In 2017, CyberWorx merged with CoI, a joint venture between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and USAFA. Led by DHS’s Dr. Terry Pierce, CoI provides vital technology scouting expertise and intra-agency connections that have resulted in significant industry and government partnerships and the delivery of key technologies to DHS and other federal entities. ACCR, the research arm of DFCS, has long been a player in cybersecurity. Its research portfolio includes creating provably secure systems for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and operational cyber capabilities for the Air Force and Department of Defense. Its current focus is applied research and development for operational challenges.

As the cyber entities continue to find ways to collaborate, the CyberWorx committee of the USAFA Endowment Board of Directors is in full support of the cyber ecosystem, its programming and the new building.

“Cyber superiority is indisputably a key requirement for the Air Force and all the U.S. military services. We are underinvested as a nation and as an Air Force,” says Paul Madera ’78, co-chair of the Endowment cyber committee. “We grads have an obligation to help prepare our cadets for this battlefield of the future, in whatever manner we can — financial contributions, programmatic suggestions and commercial collaboration if possible — to improve our capabilities.”

Early successes

Each of the cyber areas has achieved its own separate successes in the past, yet collaboration has been growing across the programs and academic disciplines. For example, Dr. John Riley, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, partnered with CyberWorx to lead two cadet projects solving problems in the humanitarian space.

For one project, his cadets collaborated with industry to prototype an application that helps predict mass atrocities. This application went on to win a national competition. His current cadets are working on another application to help refugees plan for their futures away from the tragedies that drove them from their homelands. CyberWorx personnel also assisted the 24th Air Force, the Air Force component of U.S. Cyber Command, with creating a new risk dashboard for military commanders.

Beginning with a design sprint — a five-step framework that helps answer critical questions through rapid prototyping and user testing — faculty, cadets and industry worked together for a semester to develop their idea. As a result, three companies are now working in tandem to create an artificial-intelligence-driven app for identifying installation issues for rapid response.

DFCS, in collaboration with CyberWorx, deployed a team of faculty and cadets to Andrews and Nellis Air Force Bases for STEM outreach at their respective airshows. These events gave more than 4,800 local visitors access to hands-on robotic and cybersecurity demonstrations. Additionally, the Cyber Competition Team, mentored by faculty, participated in 11 events during the fall of 2017 maintaining a ranking in the top 10 percent of the world.

Capstone teams within ACCR are conducting research that ranges from assessing the cybersecurity of a combatant command’s network to building a virtual reality simulation that assists cadets in overcoming their fear of heights as they prepare to jump off the 10-meter board in water survival training.

Benefits for multiple audiences

“We must continually work to help cadets think differently about problems and prepare them to rapidly create solutions,” Caswell says. “The cyber ecosystem here will benefit cadets in any way they choose to engage in solving the technical challenges. This innovation ecosystem is intended to provide unique tools for both cadets and faculty to continually push the technological edge.”

As one example, Caswell envisions extending the current first-class academic year capstone to 18 months. The additional time would benefit the Air Force with an improved experience for the cadets tied to operational needs and supported by industry partners.

One version of this capstone might see the cadets complete an independent study alongside a knowledgeable faculty member and an industry partner for one semester to establish foundational knowledge. Over the summer, they would intern with the industry partner to begin work on a research project, which would continue through their first-class year and culminate in a final project.

That same type of focus, Caswell says, is “a boon” to Air Force officers serving as faculty members. They are able to gain experience designing, researching and building solutions to operational problems, and the opportunities to do so are increasing. Their participation improves their ability to mentor cadets while enhancing their leadership skills as they prepare for future assignments in the Air Force.

The benefits also are numerous for industry partners. As participants in design and research projects, they have the ability to bring ideas to market faster, gain a better understanding about military requirements, and become ambassadors for the solutions and associated technologies.

“It is an exciting time as our cyber enterprise continues to grow from the founding leadership of retired Brig. Gen. David Gibson, Dr. Marty Carlisle and Col. Jeff Collins. With the current team of Col. Caswell as the department head and Lt. Col. Michael Chiaramonte as the CyberWorx director, I foresee great things for the Air Force, USAFA and our cadets," Armacost says.

The Academy's superintendent agrees about the exciting future for cyber at USAFA.

"Cyber harnesses the ingenuity of our more than 4,000 digital native cadets, innovating ways to revolutionize our employment of cyber technologies and directly influence the capabilities that our Air Force employs,” says Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria ’85, superintendent of the Air Force Academy. “The partnerships built here allow us to educate and train officers who enter the Air Force ready to keep pace with rapidly changing technology and effectively integrate operations in all three mission domains: air, space and cyberspace. The future of cyber is bright with possibilities."

Stay informed about USAFA cyber happenings at usafa.org/cyberworx.

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