Air Force Expanding Information Operations Classes
The 39th Info Ops Squadron moves to meet rising demand.
With information operations (IO) in the world stage spotlight, the U.S. Air Force sees a growing need for experts in the field and is taking steps to expand training opportunities with the 39th Information Operations Squadron (IOS).
The 39th IOS, located at Hurlburt Field, Florida, trains Air Force personnel in information and cyber operations, including both offensive and defensive cyber skills. The unit conducts qualification and advanced training to provide mission-ready information and cyber warfare operators for all Air Force major commands.
Training includes the IO Integration Course, which provides initial qualification for airmen who will primarily serve in Air Operations Centers; the Signature Management Course, which provides military deception and operational security training to officers and non-commissioned officers serving as wing-level signature managers; and the Operational Military Deception course, which provides training for Air Force major command and Component Numbered Air Force planners, according to the unit’s webpage. The 39th IOS also provides training for network warfare operators serving in Air Force, joint, and interagency cyber units and activities.
Next year the unit will add courses for psychological operations as well as an information warfare fundamentals and planning course. The course will be available to IO officers in the 14F career field and other Air Force specialty codes, or AFSCs, which designate a service member’s career field.
The new curriculum is nearly complete, reports Capt. Amanda McKeever, USAF, the flight commander overseeing IO training courses and the director of the 14F Information Operations Professionals Course. “The Army primarily has always held the stick for training psychological operations, but the Air Force is looking to develop our own psychological operations course and not just open it to 14Fs as a training audience but other AFSCs that have a stake in influence, such as cyber,” Capt. McKeever says. “As far as a way ahead, we’re developing new courses to offer to additional practitioners. We have most of the curriculum developed for that, but we’re expanding that curriculum and hopefully standing that up in 2023.”
The 39th also is expanding its information warfare courses. “We’re also looking to create and have curriculum developed for an information warfare fundamentals and planning course so that we can meet the demands of the Air Force’s movement toward information warfare,” Capt. McKeever reports.
The captain and her colleagues do not mention any particular country or operation during an interview with SIGNAL Magazine, but China, Russia and others have been striving for dominance in the information arena in recent years as a way to shape public opinion, among other goals. And Russia and Ukraine are battling for information supremacy as war rages between the two.
“I do think that we have assessed that we have a requirement and a growing need for more information operations planners. If you look at a lot of the conflicts that we are either observing or engaging in today, conflict looks a lot different than it used to,” Capt. McKeever points out. “We’re not necessarily engaging in a five-phase construct of warfare. We’re engaging across the competition continuum.”
The changing nature of warfare with an emphasis on information helped spark the changes within the Air Force. “I think that the U.S. is definitely focused on IO based on what’s going on in the world, and the Defense Department and the joint force is posturing to meet that need,” Capt. McKeever asserts, adding that the service has seen increased demand for information operations expertise. “That’s definitely part of the reason we’re adding courses.”
And competing across the continuum requires adapting to meet the threat and compete with adversaries, she indicates. “Our authorities and how we have traditionally done different types of information-related capabilities have all been tied to that five-phase warfare construct, so it limits what our abilities are when it comes to competition, but there are a lot of changes the joint force is making to be able to meet those challenges,” she adds.
Those changes include “making information a joint function,” which she describes as “a big change, establishing 16th Air Force with a unique set of authorities and structure in order to posture for competing in the information environment.” Additionally, the Air Force is eliminating its 13 Oscar career field—multidomain warfare officers—and allowing those members to transition to jobs as 14Fs. Furthermore, company grade officers—lieutenants and captains—will be allowed to fill some positions that traditionally required lieutenant colonels or training with joint accreditation requirements. “And we’re seeing some commanders accept that risk and try it out and have some success with it,” the captain states.
As commanders see the benefits provided by the 39th’s graduates, they show more interest in information operations or information warfare planning,” Capt. McKeever notes. “A lot of different career fields are familiar with the joint planning process, the joint targeting process, these existing military processes, but they don’t necessarily understand how to fit IO or IW into those processes.” As a result, the unit has done “on-the-fly training” with the 16th Air Force. “We did that in January to show people exactly what to do and how to integrate IO and IW into existing military processes.”
To make the training more realistic, the unit is now integrating a real-world operational scenario from one of the combatant commands. That is largely because replicating the information environment is so complex and includes so many different factors that attempting to do may actually be a detriment to training. “So we decided to leverage as much detail as I can get about an existing combatant command problem set so that our students can practice analyzing the information environment and planning against real intelligence, a real-world problem set that they can grapple with in order to create as much of a realistic training environment as possible,” she reports.
And she hopes to add more real-world scenarios from other combatant commands over time. “That helps our students to get familiar with actual, real authorities, both IO and cyber, as well as organization, the theater lay-down and the threat,” she explains. “And we give our students all active accounts across all of the different levels: unclassified, secret and top secret.
They do not have student accounts. They have real accounts so they can do real research and actually practice how they plan.”
Expanding courses requires an expansion of facilities, explains Capt. Kyle Smathers, USAF, defensive cyberspace instructor at the 39th. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic ran rampant, the 39th never slowed down, he reports. “In fact, over the last two, three years, we’ve gone from about 10 capable classrooms to about 30. On the cyber side, we previously had one data center, and now we have three. Really, you’re looking at a tripling of our capacity to see students. That includes the IO folks, the defensive cyber folks and the offensive cyber folks.”