Even Weather Intelligence Faces Stormy Cyber Days
Given increasing threat levels, the Air Force is employing cybersecurity measures to protect its data, especially to safeguard information that is weather-related and feeds into military decision making. The service is applying mission defense teams, or specialized cybersecurity crews, to safeguard weather intelligence. The cyber mission defense team structure is in action at the 557th Weather Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska.
The wing, which is charged with providing weather intelligence information to the Defense Department, the intelligence community and many other entities, needed additional cyber safeguards, explains Col. Patrick Williams, USAF, commander of the wing’s 2nd Weather Group. The data center capabilities and the storage capacity that it takes to run weather intelligence processing is demanding, he notes, but just as vital, is the need to secure the data.
“We collect data all over the world, and ingest it into a datacenter at Offutt,” Col. Williams explains. “We collect it from military sites, from academia, from industry, everywhere. We process about 92 terabytes of data a day. And we want the end user to make sure that they know that the data we’ve given them is secure and accurate, and that there are no other additional packets or riders, if you will, on that data that can penetrate their systems and create a back door allowing them to get hacked. That’s a big challenge and that’s a big security concern of ours.”
For the 2nd Weather Group, mission defense teams, or MDTs, are playing a key role in digitally guarding the weather intelligence, he says. “Initially, there were not enough cyber defenders, as we call them, to go around,” the commander states. “Now we have a mission defense team and it is a total force team, both active duty, guard and reserve. And it’s not just cyber folks. We have some intel specialists embedded in that cyber defense team as well.”
Air Combat Command (ACC), which is leading the MDT effort across the Air Force, provided the MDT team at Offutt with the tools “to go out and find nefarious actors,” Col. Williams stated. “And these guys have done a phenomenal job.”
Part of the team’s abilities come from their training, which includes practicing with the 229th Cyberspace Operations Squadron in Vermont. The squadron hosts the Multi-Application Practical Learning Environment (MAPLE) Range where cyber defenders and other warfighters can conduct distributed cyber operations simulations on a network. “It’s a closed system where they’re able to go out and face 13 or 14 different problems or nefarious actors,” the commander explains. “And so our team was able to go out and find quite a few of them actually, and they’re getting better and better as we go. They are training constantly and trying to figure out new ways to get at the problem.”
In addition, the MDT is looking at the security of any connection that the 557th Weather Wing uses as a communications link to get the weather intelligence out to those who need it. “I can create the perfect forecast, but if I can’t get it to the end user, it does no good,” Col. Williams states. “So the communications link between what we do and the end user is extremely important.”
As far as the 2nd Weather Group’s top technological needs from the private sector, the commander identifies cloud migration tools, artificial intelligence (AI), and data storage and processing. However, whichever solutions they pursue have to be affordable, he stresses. “That’s the key thing, affordability, because our budget is obviously limited by whatever we get from Congress and then whatever funnels down to the wing,” Col. Williams says.
They are working with various program offices in the Air Force Materiel Command to continue to build out the wing’s vital storage and data center needs. “We’re always looking for more storage, better processing capabilities and just different ways to move the data back and forth within the processing center that makes sense and goes faster,” the commander adds. Additionally, the wing is partnering internally with outside users on how to apply AI and machine learning. “There’s definitely some room for AI and machine learning in this weather business,” the colonel shares.
Efforts going into fiscal year 2020 will revolve around expanding the MDT at Offutt, Col. Williams indicates. “I’m trying to make our MDT a lot more robust, because I think given the size and volume of data that goes back and forth and the size of the data center, there’s a lot of work there,” he clarifies.
When the U.S. Space Force materializes, the colonel imagines, the wing would play a role in providing weather intelligence, including space weather capabilities, to the new service. Already, the wing provides weather intelligence to the Army, which does not have any indigenous weather capabilities of their own. “We have a support agreement between the Air Force and the Army to provide that service to the Army,” Col. Williams says. “And in return, they provide the Air Force with veterinary support, so it works out.”
In the meantime, the ACC will be moving the management of the 557th Weather Wing from the 12th Air Force into the new numbered Air Force it is standing up this fall, which will bring together all of the service’s information warfare capabilities.