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Maryland Airmen Key To Strategic Cyber Missions
by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Schepers
December 22, 2022

Members of the Maryland Air National Guard recently completed a six-month activation in support of U.S. Cyber Command’s Cyber National Mission Force and passed the mission to fellow Airmen of the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group on its sixth year of continuous support.

The 276th Cyberspace Operations Squadron handed over the responsibilities to the 175th Cyberspace Operations Squadron to continue to defend the U.S. against foreign adversaries under the 24th National Mission Team.

"The Maryland Airmen provide critical support against our nation's most difficult problem sets in cyberspace,” said U.S. Navy Commander Eric Graewert, one of the supported task force commander. “They are in close, continuous contact with malicious cyber actors on a daily basis, working closely alongside the active joint force, to defend the nation. Their time here is a great example of the role that our National Guard plays in strategic-level operations."

Tacet Venari participants analyze metadata to identify any suspicious activity on the network during exercise Tacet Venari at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 12, 2022. The two-week cyber exercise provides Airmen the opportunity to identify, detect and respond to cyber threats. The exercise gives participants hands-on experience on how to recognize irregularities in the network. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett.)
Tacet Venari participants analyze metadata to identify any suspicious activity on the network during exercise Tacet Venari at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 12, 2022. The two-week cyber exercise provides Airmen the opportunity to identify, detect and respond to cyber threats. The exercise gives participants hands-on experience on how to recognize irregularities in the network. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett.)

The CNMF is U.S. Cyber Command’s joint force charged with defending the nation in cyberspace against foreign malicious cyber actors. It plans, directs and conducts full-spectrum cyberspace operations to disrupt, degrade and defeat those foreign adversaries who target the U.S. and its allies.

Beginning in 2016, Maryland cyber professionals from the 175th COS and 276th COS as well as the 166th COS from the Delaware Air National Guard, began rotating through half-year activations to the 24 NMT.

“Just like our A-10s are aligned to mobilize and deploy, mission sets in cyber are no different,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jason Barrass, 175th Cyberspace Operations Group deputy commander. “As soon as we stood up the COS we eventually became aligned with the 24 NMT and started mobilizing every 12 months.”

CNMF consists of multiple task forces aligned against an individual adversaries: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and emerging threats. Assigned members have expertise across the full-spectrum of operations: defensive, offensive, and information operations with services still providing cyber protection and national mission teams to each task force.

“During our recent activation our members conducted [more than] 255 tip-of-the spear cyberspace targeting and exploitation missions against two near-peer adversarial forces and helped streamline many processes,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Quinlan, 276th COS director of operations.

Quinlan praised the Airmen for the work they did within their mission set that was “above and beyond '' expectation.

The 24 NMT is the only total-force, blended entity with members from both the active duty Air Force and Air National Guard that work together toward achieving their mission goals. In addition to the Maryland and Delaware Air National Guard units that rotate through six-month activations, the 341st COS, an active duty Air Force unit, is always present serving on the 24 NMT.

“The relationship we have built with the 341st COS is truly a partnership,” said Quinlan. “In addition to our operators and other folks that are part of the team that perform their assignments, we all fill various roles while activated for this mission. The leadership team is comprised of Airmen from each squadron so our partnership is truly equal.”

When the Maryland Air National Guard activates to support this mission they typically fill four different work roles to include team lead, mission commander, interactive operator, and cyber planner. All of this support has an extra benefit to 175th COG operators when it comes to being always ready, always there.

“While we have people supporting the national mission team, we have access to understanding enemy best practices, and access to cyberspace at large. All of that access makes us better cyber operators,” said Barrass. “We can utilize those skills here domestically, both to red teams and to understand our adversaries capabilities. That is cross sharing where we have a defensive mission and an offensive mission but if you understand the offensive mission you can help better to defend.”

Senior Master Sgt. Arnold Yox, senior enlisted leader for the 276th COS, credits the “longevity” of Airmen who serve in the Air National Guard as a reason they have had continued success supporting the 24th NMT.

“In the guard you can have a 20-year career in the same unit, supporting the same mission, so we bring that level of experience and consistency within the same mission set,” said Yox. “You’re seeing the same faces every 12-18 months, so you know they will be back and you will see them again.”

U.S. Air Force 1st. Lt. Chris Tran, left, 51st Network Operations Squadron deputy flight commander assigned to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and Senior Airman Frederic Borries, right, 52nd Communications Squadron chief of training assigned to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, simulate a high fidelity traffic environment for a cyber range during exercise Tacet Venari at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 12, 2022. Tacet Venari is United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa’s premiere defensive cyberspace operational training targeted at USAFE’s mission defense team. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett.)
U.S. Air Force 1st. Lt. Chris Tran, left, 51st Network Operations Squadron deputy flight commander assigned to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and Senior Airman Frederic Borries, right, 52nd Communications Squadron chief of training assigned to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, simulate a high fidelity traffic environment for a cyber range during exercise Tacet Venari at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 12, 2022. Tacet Venari is United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa’s premiere defensive cyberspace operational training targeted at USAFE’s mission defense team. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett.)

The Airmen supporting this mission through the 24 NMT deliver cyber effects through the full spectrum of cyberspace operations and although they are an offensive cyber unit, their specific mission is considered Defensive Cyber Operations Response Actions.

“As an offensive unit, we deliver effects, we’re not just looking for effects that were perhaps used against us, so our specific mission is DCO-RA,” explained Yox. “We are actor-on-actor operators and our mission set is typically at the very low tactical level.”

The Cyber Mission Force (of which CNMF is a part of) is projected to grow by 14 new teams in the coming years, so Quinlan thinks the 175th COG is well-positioned for what is next.

“Cyber is the future, and our Airmen are at the center of tip-of-the-spear operations,” said Quinlan. “The future is also now, which is why it is important to be involved in this operation.”

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