Airmen may soon take cybersecurity classes as part of a new school designed to bring the Air Force's digital abilities to the cutting edge.
"Ultimately, when we're fully capable, every airmen will have access to content on cyber education that makes them aware of the world around them and their goal of being problem solvers," said Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, who's heading up the endeavor.
On June 2, Kwast, commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, made public the plans to create a "cyber college" to expand the education and training available to airmen.
A few days later, the federal government announced it was the victim of one of the largest data breaches in history, with hackers getting personal information on millions of Americans.
"It just reinforces the fact that we as a society, and really we as a world, have grown dependent on cyber," Kwast told Air Force Times. "Those dependencies can create vulnerabilities that we have to be able to defend against."
Kwast hopes the new cyber college will help lead the Air Force's answer to that growing cyber threat.
"The purpose of Air University is to help educate airmen for the defense of this nation," he said. "As we move from an Industrial Age world to a Digital Age world, educating the workforce on how to integrate, respond rapidly, find solutions in the cyber realm is critical."
Professor Anthony Skjellum of nearby Auburn University said "there can't be enough smart cyber people and folks working directly for the armed services."
"They need to be the leaders because it's a constant threat," said Skjellum, Auburn's lead cyber scientist and a professor of computer science and engineering.
It's important for every single member of the military to have a grasp of cyber threats, he added.
"Your weakest link is what gets you," Skjellum said. "It goes all the way down to the secretary's computer -- that can be a vector for attack."
As the world becomes increasingly digital, so too does the training.
"When people hear 'cyber college,' they're thinking how many students, how many teachers, how many classrooms," Kwast said.
The idea, however, is to have a range of educational options available – including online courses airmen can access from around the world.
Plus, rather than having a set program where everyone in a classroom is studying the same thing, Kwast said each airman will be able to study the things that are relevant to his or her job and mission.
"We live in a world where we can tailor-make the curriculum for the individual needs of that specific airman," Kwast said. "The new airmen that comes in, if they're going to be a cyber-expert, their education is going to be very different then someone who's going to be a pilot…The curriculum will be as flexible as cyber is diverse."
That education, Kwast hopes, will change some of the current mindset about cybersecurity issues.
"Whenever a problem is new on the horizon, people try to use their current existing technology to solve that problem," he said. ""After they throw all the current tools at it, they realize they don't understand the problem."
Some cyber solutions might not require action on a computer at all, but rather a change in policy or procedure, Kwast said, adding that people often need to fully understand the problem before taking action.
"Not a lot of people step back and say 'what is the nature of this problem and how might we solve it?'"
But Kwast said it's critical that airmen understand cybersecurity issues, since the topic is so important to Air Force operations.
"All airpower missions have to work with, on, or through cyber in some form or function," he said.
Due to the unique missions of each military branch, the services need to have their own education on cybersecurity, Kwast said.
"The problem in cyber that is experienced by a satellite or a plane in flight is slightly different then the cyber problem that is encountered by a soldier on the ground," Kwast said. "When you have an airman thinking about the problems of aerospace and the problem of needing to have that reach anywhere in the world in a timely matter, the cybersecurity challenges of that are different."
Skjellum said the advanced computer systems carried on modern aircraft pose a unique threat to the Air Force.
"When you're driving at 30, 40 mph and driving a Jeep, you can stop," he said. "When a plane is flying, you don't have the option to reboot. If you leave a Jeep for half an hour, OK, someone has to walk; but you lose a plane for a half an hour, it's not in the air [carrying out missions]."
Officials need to make sure the training is deep and complete enough to equip America's next generation of cyber warriors, Skjellum said.
"It's not enough to have one course on how to change your password or run an anti-virus. There's a lot more that goes into cyber," he said. "The opponent is sometimes very smart, and sometimes we're letting in opponents that are not that smart because we're not organized and not prepared."
The Air Force is partnering with local universities, like Auburn, as well as reaching out to private companies and other educational institutions to form partnerships to aid in the cybersecurity training, said Joe Greene, the military liaison for the Montgomery, Alabama, Chamber of Commerce.
"The whole river region [around Maxwell] is fully behind this effort," he said. "We've got a number of universities not only in the local area but within the state which are doing a number of very significant things in cyber."
The universities are all studying different aspects of cybersecurity as well, Greene said, such as digital forensics or open source capabilities.
"The synergies associated with all of those collaborations collectively is greater than what each institution is doing singularly," he said.
The group is working in a "virtual sandbox," Greene said, where they can solve real-life cyber solutions in a controlled environment.
Kwast said partnerships with universities and companies will allow the Air Force "to stay at the leading edge of creative innovation in civil society," and take advantage of the progress made by those private institutions.
"The innovation that will happen in cyberspace is going to be so rapid, and most of that innovation is going to be in civil society," he said.
But the partnership cuts both ways, and the military's efforts to better understand and respond to cybersecurity threats "benefits all of society, it adds to the collective security of society," Kwast said.
"When the power system is benefiting from ideas that are floated around, that then they can import into ways of being more resilient, then our entire society is safer," he said. "This is national security at its heart."