Unleashing Innovation: 439th Comm. Sq. Leads Charge in Cyber Incident Response

  • Published
  • By Major Eric Sorensen
  • 439th Airlift Wing

Achievements over the last year by the 439th Communication Squadron have marked the unit as a pioneering force in the realm of cyber incident response.

While various units within the total force possess the necessary technical IT skills to support operational missions through traditional base communications assets, these same units often face limited funding for mission-assurance activities to actively defend base-specific platforms and missions in the cyber domain.

After submitting an initial operational capability package in FY22 to Air Force Reserve Command and Air Combat Command for the cyber squadron initiative, the squadron received the news that ACC could only select a limited number of units in FY23 to be considered for the initiative due to limited funding. In response, Citizen Airmen in the 439 CS showed initiative by leveraging existing legacy physical hardware and end-point devices, fashioning a secured, digital network known as the "Predator Range."

This simulated, closed network emulates a traditional network environment, complete with HR, Accounting, Databases, and other mission functions, fortified with functioning firewalls and endpoint detection systems. 

Named after the eponymous 1987 movie, the Predator Range serves as a dynamic training ground to hunt down an invisible predator in the vast network, enabling unit members to transition from theoretical exercises such as tabletops, walkthroughs, and simulations, to practical hands-on experience in dealing with real cyber incidents and conducting threat hunting operations.

The honed threat-hunting skills will be put into action during the upcoming Cyber Yankee 2023 exercise this month at the CT National Guard’s Camp Nett in Niantic.

The ongoing development of the Predator Range relies on the expertise of server and network specialists within the 439th CS. They continuously refine and expand the network infrastructure, enabling the team to establish increasingly sophisticated virtual systems and laying the groundwork for a Red Team to stage their cyber-attacks.

During the April UTA, Lt. Col. Jon Baum, 439th Mission Support Group commander, visited the 439th CS to witness first-hand the team's accomplishments.  He commended the member’s ability to accelerate change to maximize resources, enabling them to provide cyber defense in any environment.

As the cyber threat landscape continues to evolve and resources remain constrained, communication squadrons across the Air Force could potentially adopt the scalable model pioneered by the 439th CS. This model allows technicians to upskill from system administrators and network engineers to range specialists and cyber incident responders without significantly increasing the Air Force's sustainment costs.