Air Force building new tactical teams for ‘cyber-enabled air superiority’

These new teams will conduct "non-kinetic operations synchronized with offensive kinetic operations" to ensure air power is unaffected by adversary attempts to defeat it.
U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing perform a flyover above Aviano Air Base, Italy, June 1, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kelsey Tucker)

The Air Force is beginning to build its own cyber teams aimed at supporting tactical air missions. The move is part of something the service is calling cyber-enabled air superiority.

“For our tactical air missions that we’re flying anywhere we are around the world, if there’s something that’s coming at us from a cyber perspective, [such as] a cyberattack on that small base and maybe that base is just a single runway and it’s not a real robust base, but just a single runway, but we’ve got fighters that are operating out of that, we need to have a capability there to defend ourselves and then perhaps an active defense, right, go on the attack from a cyber perspective,” Lt. Gen. Leah Lauderback, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cyber effects operations, said at a Hudson Institute event July 20.

An Air Force spokesperson told DefenseScoop that cyber-enabled air superiority “provides operationally integrated cyber capabilities to the air component to help assure the projection of air power against the adversary in future operating environments.”

These teams will also differ from the Air Force’s Mission Defense Teams — specialized cyber units that detect and protect critical Air Force missions and installations from digital threats. Rather, the new teams will perform “non-kinetic operations synced with offensive kinetic operations,” the spokesperson said.


This buildout is also significant as all the services, in one way or another, are beginning to grow their own organic cyber teams and capabilities separate from U.S. Cyber Command for tactical or expeditionary cyber operations.

To date, most if not all offensively oriented cyber operations were conducted by and through Cybercom and its teams. Authorities for cyber ops have been held at the highest levels of government for many years due to fears that operations could have unintended consequences or spread into networks beyond the intended target.

As the cyber landscape has evolved, along with a maturation and understanding of cyber operations in the military and targets that might not be connected to the traditional internet, each of the services have begun investing in capabilities and forces for their own offensive cyber needs.

However, this is mostly in the blended electronic warfare or radio frequency-enabled sphere at the tactical level given the expanded authorities commanders have within this space on the battlefield.

Updated Department of Defense doctrine along with congressional prodding has created the room for such capabilities to be developed below Cybercom.


“The Air Force is getting after tactical cyber to support air operations by employing the Cyber Enabled Air Superiority concept,” the spokesperson added, noting these new teams would be analogous to Cybercom’s combat mission teams, which conduct cyber ops on behalf of combatant commands, mainly in the offensive sphere.

Such a concept was necessary, they said, because pacing threats have forced the Air Force to more closely integrate tactical cyber capabilities to accomplish air component missions.

Lauderback explained the Air Force will remission an Air National Guard unit from Mansfield, Ohio to become a cyberspace wing to take on this new mission, adding it won’t be the only unit to bring this capability within the service.

While it’s not clear at the moment how many teams will be created to serve this mission, they all will eventually be housed under 16th Air Force, the service’s information warfare entity that serves as a component to Cybercom and is responsible for intelligence, electromagnetic spectrum operations, information ops and other capabilities.

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