Back to the future ... kind of: AFNIC’s journey in the new millennium

  • Published
  • By Markus Rogers, Executive Director
  • Air Force Network Integration Center

The 90s and early 2000s saw the de-centralization of communications with the stand down of Air Force Communications Command as a major command and the responsibility for communications and networking realigning to local bases. While this allowed individual MAJCOMs and local bases the leeway to acquire and implement technology to best meet their mission needs, it resulted in a patchwork of systems and networks with differing standards, operating processes and defensive postures.

However, by the mid-2000s we saw the Air Force look toward centralizing some of these functions as the importance of cyber was recognized.

On Dec. 7, 2005, then Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Chief Of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley unveiled a new mission statement for the U.S. Air Force. “The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests — to fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace.”  The unprecedented addition of cyberspace as an operational domain highlighted the increasing importance of cyber operations in the U.S. Air Force.

In July 2006, the Air Force Network Operations (AFNETOPS) Command stood up, putting all Air Force units charged with network operations under the authority of a single commander, Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr, 8th Air Force and AFNETOPS commander.

“The biggest benefit of standing up a command structure for Air Force Network Operations is that it unifies command of the Air Force computer network under one person, who serves as the Air Force component commander, and presents network operations forces to STRATCOM’s Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations,” Elder went on to say. “Previously, we had commands focused on air and space forces, but no command focused on operations in cyberspace. That’s what we’re going to provide here.”

Five months later, in further recognition of the importance of cyberspace as a warfighting domain, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force directed the 8th AF commander to create a new MAJCOM, Air Force Cyberspace Command, to “redefine air power by extending our global power into a new domain — the domain of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum.” On Sept. 18, 2007, HQ AF Cyber Command (Provisional) was activated, with Maj. Gen. William T. Lord taking command.

AF Communications Agency (AFCA) personnel quickly became deeply involved in establishing the new command, providing 55 percent of the headquarters staff. In order to meet Lord’s strategic vision, AFCA’s Cyber Force Strategies division played a major role in establishing 17 new career fields and associated training and force development programs.

Then, the Air Force needed to focus on reinvigorating the nuclear enterprise, which paused the establishment of Air Force Cyber Command, ultimately deciding to establish a numbered Air Force for cyber instead.

In May 2009, the Air Force designated Air Force Space Command as the lead Air Force major command for cyberspace.

“The integration of these domains allows our service to capitalize on inherent synergies found in space and cyberspace architectures, processes, skill sets and training,” said Gen C. Robert Kehler, AFSPC commander.

As part of this transition, AFCA would see a change in its mission responsibilities.  

The organization would become the focal point for shaping, provisioning, sustaining and integrating the enterprise network, and enabling assured core cyberspace capabilities to achieve a warfighting advantage. This drove AFCA’s redesignation as the Air Force Network Integration Center (AFNIC), and realigned AFNIC under AFSPC.

In August 2009, the 24th Air Force stood up under AFSPC to plan and conduct cyberspace operations in support of the nation’s combatant commands and maintain and defend the Air Force Enterprise Network (AFNET).

“For the first time in the history of the Air Force, we have consolidated cyber capabilities under an operational war fighter solely devoted to cyber operations,” said Maj. Gen. Richard E. Webber, the first 24th AF commander, during the activation ceremony.

In order to simplify the operations and defense of the network for 24th AF, AFNIC executed the largest cyber network overhaul in Air Force history. The AFNET migration, a five year effort which began in 2009, collapsed the 13 MAJCOM networks on NIPR into a single, integrated network. It created a centrally managed, standardized structure under the operational control of the 24th Air Force commander. This $162 million effort migrated over 644,000 user accounts, integrated 275 bases and geographically separated units, and decommissioned 11,318 servers.

Until now, organizations across the Air Force have been operating what were essentially their own independent networks, consequently driving unique and unit specific requirements. The AFNET migration meant enterprise-class situational awareness, network scalability and an ability to command and control our network.

Along with the AFNET Migration, AFNIC was also engaged to provide education, training, crew certification, exercise and mission rehearsal capabilities to cyber operators. AFNIC developed and deployed the Simulated Training Exercise (SIMTEX) range, a simulator that provided essential Computer Network Operations experience to improve Air Force and Joint Cyberspace Operations. SIMTEX simulated adversary network capability at the AETC schoolhouses and operational locations providing a full spectrum of computer network defense, exploitation and attack training. In 2011, AFNIC hosted the first “Cyber Nexus” competition, a force-on-force cyberspace operations competition which leveraged the SIMTEX range.

During this timeframe, AFNIC was also responsible for engineering and maintaining the ground entry points for the Executive Airlift Communications Network (EACN), which provides communications support to United States senior leaders giving them the ability to access multiple classification levels of voice, video and data services from select platforms while in flight.

AFNIC used the Airborne Laboratory Environment (Scope ABLE), a reconfigured DC-9 fuselage, for testing and advancing airborne networking and communications systems prior to flight testing and incorporation into EACN. New components or systems that proved promising for airborne networking were integrated into the equipment suite on Scope ABLE for a detailed aircraft ground assessment prior to flight tests. This significantly reduced the amount of testing that had to occur during flight, saving the Air Force thousands of dollars per hour in avoided flight costs.

In 2011, as AFPSC was maturing its cyberspace capabilities, they conducted an organizational study on AFNIC. AFNIC didn’t organizationally change when it transitioned from SAF to AFSPC, but at this time it became apparent that there was some duplication and mis-alignment with other cyber functions in AFSPC. As a result of this study, missions formerly assigned to AFNIC became a part of two new Air Force units.

The AFSPC Cyberspace Support Squadron (CYSS), would provide the MAJCOM with the cyber expertise required to manage cyberspace-lead programs and activities. The 38th Cyberspace Readiness Squadron (38 CYRS) focused on delivering long-haul communications services and cyber systems management for the Air Force and joint warfighter. This left AFNIC to concentrate on its mission to be a technical center of excellence for AFNET integration, support HQ AFSPC in its role as the AF’s lead command for cyber, and continue to execute network engineering integration responsibilities.    

In July 2018, the AF realigned cyber responsibilities from AFSPC to Air Combat Command (ACC).

“This move will drive faster decisions as we fight by realigning the cyber operations and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions under the same command,” said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

“Air Force cyber capabilities are intertwined with the intelligence, command and control, air superiority, personnel recovery, and precision attack missions that we are responsible for,” said Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of ACC. “This move streamlines how the Air Force presents forces to joint commanders, and it improves our ability to integrate cyber and air operations to improve our effectiveness in multiple domains.”

The continuously advancing nature of technology means that practitioners of cyberspace, communications, and information systems are well versed in change. Whatever is on the digital horizon, the men and women of the Air Force Network Integration Center will be there to meet the challenge.