Yet life for the celebrated local group has gone on much as it has for more than four decades … with continued, cutting-edge, visceral taskings that require set up and maintenance of communications and air traffic control systems in isolated, austere, sometimes hostile locations around the world.
The October 2009 activation of the 689th at Robins was a red-letter day, making the local installation a focal point not only for combat communications but also for cyber security. The 689th, a key element of 24th Air Force and Air Force Space Command, linked the 5th CCG with its sister agency – the 3rd Combat Communications Group – at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., along with some 6,000 Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members across the nation.
Col. Kevin Krause, 5th CCG commander, said his unit’s mission – and the mission of the 689th – is to extend cyber space and to operate, protect and defend that domain at a deployed location.
“Cyber space is the thing that traverses the other domains of land, sea and air,” he pointed out. “That’s what we bring to the fight.”
The mix of skills among the 5th’s more than 700 airmen hasn’t changed remarkably.
“We continue to have a broad breadth of specialties,” Krause said. “They range throughout the communications field as well as airfield operations. We also have power and heating and air technicians because we go to remote places and stand on our own.”
Although more technical than many Air Force units, the Iowa native said a “warrior ethos” still pervades all the unit does.
“That is so important to our being able to function and operate successfully,” he stressed. “Certainly the cyber piece has taken on added emphasis and we are adding rigor to the training of our airmen. But the ‘warrior ethos’ is critical because we often go to tough, hostile environments.”
The nagging reality of cyber security is that no location – however distant or remote – is immune to unwanted intrusion. Lt. Gen. Bill Lord, the Air Force chief of warfighting integration, told an Air Force Association symposium earlier this month that 17,000 scans of the Air Force network have been detected just this year.
“They are after our intellectual property, defense, financial, intelligence information and more,” Lord reported. “More important, they are accessing our networks for later exploitation.”
Krause, who took over the local command in July of last year, said the 5th tries to educate its airmen and give them the skills and tools to defend the network.
“Cyber space is a tough neighborhood,” he pointed out. “Anytime we go out into cyber space, we are surrounded by threats either from a foreign nation, a terrorist or a criminal. They all live and operate on the net to some degree.”
The Air Force Academy graduate said the Air Force is placing heavy emphasis on the cyber threat.
“In basic military training, our recruits are exposed to cyber space and the threats,” he said. “We also provide training to our officers. We’re hitting a broad cross section of our people, letting them know that we need to treat cyber space like a weapon system.”
In many respects, cyber security is only as good as the weakest link.
“It’s serious business,” Krause indicated, “and it’s in everybody’s hands. A single airman can be our greatest asset or weakness. If they slip in their defensive skills in something as simple as failing to update antivirus software, they can impact the entire network.”
The 5th employs a “defense-in-depth” approach to cyber security in the field.
“In the past, we tried to protect everything,” the colonel said, “but we’re realizing how difficult that is.”
He said the “defense-in-depth” alternative is similar to measures used to protect Robins AFB.
“We put a fence around it,” he said. “We have roving guards and sensors that alert those roving guards to possible threats. That’s the approach we use with our network. We make sure we keep the mission going no matter what the threats are.”
Despite the often high-tech nature of the 5th’s mission, the bottom line is always the dedication and commitment of the people.
“I always like to foot stomp the pride our airmen have,” Krause said. “They train and work hard every day to deploy and execute communications and air traffic control anywhere in the world. They have to train, maintain our equipment and ensure our stuff is ready to go out the door within 72 hours.”
But he noted that an often overlooked part of the equation is the support both the 5th and 3rd receive from their home bases and the surrounding communities.
“We get tremendous support from the home front and we’re always very thankful for that,” Krause said.