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Defending The Remotely Piloted Aircraft Network
by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Haley Stevens
December 6, 2019

Mission Defense Teams are the result of the Cyber Squadron Initiative (CS-I), which is a plan to move communications squadrons away from Information Technology (IT) service and toward a mission set that involves the cyberspace side of their wing’s operational mission.

The 432nd Wing’s MDT is tasked with assuring the integrity of the MQ-9 Reaper’s cyber networks and protecting the support equipment that connect the aircraft to the cockpits on the ground.

A member of the Mission Defense Team at the 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron responds to a cyber-hack during a cyber-defense training exercise at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada on December 21, 2017. This team has created operational-level guidance that has been disseminated across the Air Combat Command, and designed and built a simulator that allows operational training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Haley Stevens)
A member of the Mission Defense Team at the 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron responds to a cyber-hack during a cyber-defense training exercise at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada on December 21, 2017. This team has created operational-level guidance that has been disseminated across the Air Combat Command, and designed and built a simulator that allows operational training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Haley Stevens)

To increase the defense of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft cyber network, Air Combat Command selected the 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base to be one of the first squadrons to test the possibilities of the CS-I.

“Cyberspace operations are key to the success of RPA operations,” said 1st Lt. Vaughn, 432nd ACMS MDT officer in charge. “The MDT is a logical extension of the existing mission assurance efforts for other components of the system.”

RPA aircrews contributed more than 300 GBU Joint Direct Attack Munition strikes in 2017 and almost 200 strikes in 2018 alone, taking hundreds of enemies off the battlefield and saving countless lives of civilians, allies and coalition forces.

This platform has become a valuable asset in the overseas war on terrorism and as the enterprise has grown, so have its defense systems.

“The RPA enterprise is rapidly growing,” Vaughn said. “It is arguably one of the most network-centric weapons system in the Air Force. The MDT will provide capabilities that will enable the 432nd Wing’s core missions and protect its assets from cyber threats.”

1st Lt. Vaughn, 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron Mission Defense Team officer in charge, and 2nd Lt. Eric, 432nd ACMS MDT Assistant officer in charge, go over computer code at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada on April 29, 2019. The 432nd Wing’s MDT is tasked with assuring the integrity of the MQ-9 Reaper’s cyber networks and protecting the support equipment that connect the aircraft to the cockpits on the ground. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Haley Stevens)
1st Lt. Vaughn, 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron Mission Defense Team officer in charge, and 2nd Lt. Eric, 432nd ACMS MDT Assistant officer in charge, go over computer code at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada on April 29, 2019. The 432nd Wing’s MDT is tasked with assuring the integrity of the MQ-9 Reaper’s cyber networks and protecting the support equipment that connect the aircraft to the cockpits on the ground. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Haley Stevens)

This team has completed numerous initiatives including Initial Qualification, Mission Assurance Decision Support System (MADSS) training, as well as, in-house training on various aspects of network security to prepare for any RPA network conditions.

To increase the awareness of the team’s responsibilities, members of the 432nd ACMS MDT have had the opportunity to brief senior leaders including Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein.

“Here at Creech, we’re looking to protect the MQ-9 enterprise by way of cyber,” explained Vaughn. “Now what we’re trying to do is get ahead of those cyber threats before they can seriously impact our mission.”

The team created operational-level guidance that has been disseminated across ACC, and also designed and built a simulator that allows cyber defense training.

Mission success has proven highly dependent on the innovation and determination of the Airmen dedicated to it. The Airmen of the MDT work every day to protect the integrity of ground control systems, aircraft, the links between them, and with them, the reliability of the RPA enterprise.

“Cyber mission assurance is the future of all mature weapon systems,” said Vaughn. “By ensuring the cyber-centric piece of the MQ-9 mission is reliable and protected, we do our part to make sure that our mission is not hindered by emerging threats.”

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