A B-2 bomber deploys for a days-long mission to another continent. In the cockpit, two pilots monitor sophisticated systems designed to protect them from a variety of threats like missiles, enemy aircraft, weather.

Miles away their flight is tracked by a team of dedicated cyber experts monitoring their computer systems to deter enemy threats that could be as damaging as a missile. These airmen are part of a new program called Communications Squadron Next.

In a world where adversaries like Russia and China continue to hack U.S. networks, aircraft and other weapons systems also need to be protected, officials have said. Airmen selected for the program will research what works — or what doesn't, said Lt. Col. Reid Novotny, co-leader of the program.

This is one way the Air Force is looking to beef up its cybersecurity efforts. Through the program, the service wants to use more airmen to prioritize cyber defense within missions rather than systems, Novotny recently told Air Force Times.

"There are a lot of great communications squadrons focused on the mission of their base," said Novotny, who works under the Office of Information Dominance at Headquarters Air Force. "They're prioritizing for what they need most. Why we're doing the Comms Squadron Next is to give those commanders on the ground the latitude and the support that they need to ensure that they have the right mindset that we as an Air Force need."

"We are calling these airmen 'pathfinders,' because there's really no turning back," he said. "This is not a pilot [program] in which we are going to turn off after say, a year. It is a pathfinder in the sense that we are moving toward a 10-year goal, which is moving our airmen away from focusing on systems and more toward missions."

The goal over the next decade will be to merge offensive and defensive cyber operations "into a full-spectrum cyber capability for [wing-level missions] called the Cyberspace Operations Squadron."

Major commands are responsible for designating airmen within pathfinder units. Some airmen — no more than 10 — might find themselves selected for the job, but many with the right skill set have already volunteered, Novotny said.

"Cyber is not one size fits all," Novotny said. "It's pervasive, throughout our entire weapons and business systems."  The program includes a wide array of airmen, both officer and enlisted, as well as civilians.

While the program, initially called the 'cyber squadron of the future,' is evolving to meet the Air Force's five core missions, much of it is still in the planning phases.

"We are accepting a lot of risk on our weapons and business systems when we're concentrating our efforts on the IT systems and the networks," he said. "So we're trying to shift our focus to defending what's most important to the Air Force — which is air power."

"Would airmen deploy? It depends," Novotny continued. That is what Comms Squadron Next exhibits — a plan to work into the future of cyber protections and operations anywhere, because geographically, cyber has no location. "It is a man-made domain," he said.

"No matter how high we build walls, no matter how many defenses we put up in cyberspace, we will always have to fight through that type of environment," Novotny said.

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

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