Pennsylvania’s Air Guardsmen at Biddle battle cyber scourges at home, abroad

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond
  • 111th Attack Wing

Hurricane Ida, the pandemic and civil unrest saturated the nation’s screens with images of National Guardsmen in action – protecting property, rescuing people and defending citizens’ rights.

These highly visible acts of courage, capability and selflessness are easily associated with Pennsylvania Air Guardsmen: they’re impressive and look good on an Instagram feed.

But that media overlooks a lesser known, but equally imperative mission going on, 24/7, in a quiet Philadelphia suburb within the dark crevices of the web.

Battling adversaries on the most modern battlefield, the 112th Cyberspace Operations Squadron here, part of the 111th Attack Wing, actively and near-imperceptibly defends national security.

In a 2017 article, Maj. Shaun Swenson of the 112th COS was quoted as saying, "As we're more and more dependent on information-centric communications and activities, the cyber aspect of that becomes more and more important.”

And that network dependence postures the 112th COS and other ANG cyberspace units to serve both locally and globally.

A state's governor may task a National Guard adjutant general to deploy that state's COS to aid civilian sector emergencies. For Pennsylvania, this means that the 112th COS could run defense on one of 16 critical infrastructure sectors: chemical, emergency services, healthcare and public health, transportation systems, food and agriculture, as well as nuclear reactors, materials and waste, among others.

They also work alongside the Air Force Reserve Command and active-duty Air Force to defend the U.S. and other countries against malicious cyber threats.

And while cyber units have various functions, the 112th COS serves the Department of Defense information network and is focused on defensive cyberspace operations in support of Air Force missions in the U.S. and other countries by smoking out bad actors.

“We are what they call a service aligned unit,” said 112th COS Commander Lt. Col. Thomas Love. “Meaning that our primary focus is on Air Force Networks and Weapons Systems but the unit can be tasked to operate on USCYBERCOM priorities.”

These conflicts are fought across the networks and computers of the world. Highly trained Air Guardsmen use every tool at their disposal, from programming to hardware to detect and repel cyberattacks on our nation’s computer systems and infrastructure.

“We’ll go out with our weapons system to the [Air Force] mission partner that tasked us, hop on their systems and see what’s going on—and this can be anything from space systems to military personnel systems,” Love stated.

In 2006, a provisional-status Air Force Cyber Command was created. Two years later, it was announced that the command would be brought into permanent activation. On June 23, 2009, the Secretary of Defense directed the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to establish U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM). Since the spring of 2016, the 112th COS has been obtaining, training and deploying its apt Airmen to hunt, clear, enable and assess networks worldwide.

One such location has been the Wing’s partner nation, Lithuania, to which COS members recently deployed to assist our partner in establishing a centralized cyber defense center which would serve as a central platform for cooperation and a hub for competence by bringing different cybersecurity activities and stakeholders under one roof. This center would be an inclusive platform allowing NATO partners, Ukraine, and Georgia to work together in countering both present and future cyber threats.

While careful not to furnish close-hold tactics, techniques and procedures, said Love, the Air Guard teams work closely with their international counterparts to strengthen the internal network with best practices in cyber defense from open-source information.

“Our technology advantage also becomes a weakness in the sense that we have such a dependency on it,” said Swenson “So, the COS helps mission partners by enhancing defensive posture [to maintain that advantage]."

Closer to home, Pennsylvania cyberspace operators recently completed a major stateside deployment providing cyber support to three Space and Air Force systems, which are based in Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska. This is part of the rotating cycle in which two of the Air Guard’s 12 cyber units remain activated to provide total force support.

They also supported the Pennsylvania elections, in part to assist fostering military-and-state relationships.

“I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of my team after completing their deployment supporting three major Space and Air Force weapons systems,” Love said. “The threats we face in this battle space are vast and unpredictable, but the 112th COS is laser-focused on hunting the threat and securing the battlespace.”