Meet the Air Force's future cyber force

FCW visited the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, where a team of young cyber cadets is racking up medals and experience prized by Pentagon leaders.

Cadet 2nd Class Josh Hayden helps a teammate with a computing challenge, while Martin Carlisle (in red tie), the professor who leads the Cyber Competition Team, is on hand to advise the cadets.

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. -- The young Air Force Academy cadets are glued to their computer screens, staring at jumbled lines of code. One is trying to hack a website in a competition sponsored by the Pentagon's research arm. Another is working on reverse-engineering problems generated by a Korean website.

A soft-spoken professor looks on, while his understudy, a man in his early 30s with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, helps cadets in another corner of the room.

The Pentagon's top leaders talk repeatedly about the need to build a cyber force to defend the country from a steady onslaught of online threats. Here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and 14 miles from downtown Colorado Springs is one of the places where that is happening.

This is the Air Force Academy's Cyber Competition Team, a group of 20 young computer virtuosos who have been racking up medals in inter-service cyber contests. They meet for eight hours a week in the lab of Martin Carlisle, the computer science professor who founded the program.

"I largely run the team self-paced," Carlisle says. "I let the cadets figure out what they're interested in, find problems, work on them, then I try to help them out when they get stuck."

The cadets have thrived in that hands-off structure. They call Carlisle "Doc" and pay close heed when he does offer advice.

"Doc doesn't want us banging our heads on the computer for days on end, so we'll ask him and he'll give us kind of a nudge in the right direction and we'll go back at it," says Cadet 2nd Class Josh Hayden, a junior at the academy.

He is working on a competition known as Cyber Stakes, which is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He has a set of computer tasks to perform, ranging from binary exploitation to cryptography, that will help him infiltrate a website and capture a hidden digital "flag."

Hayden's screen displays the target website that is hosted on his server. He enters a URL, and the program retrieves the website data. It could be a couple more days before he is able to capture the flag, he says.

When he graduates from the academy next year, Hayden plans to go to graduate school in a computer science-related field or straight into the cyber career track offered by the Air Force.

Next to Hayden is Cadet 1st Class Bill Parks, co-captain of the team and a senior at the academy. Several months after he graduates, Parks will go to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. In the meantime, he has a team of cyber cadets to lead.

Parks and Hayden were part of the Air Force Academy delegation that won three out of five team events at a DARPA cyber competition at Carnegie Mellon University in January. "I'm fairly happy with our performance," Parks says humbly. He won the gold medal in the "speed-reverse engineering" competition.

Parks, who joined the cyber team in 2012 as a sophomore, says the hours in the lab have paid dividends in his other coursework. In a class on operating systems, for example, "I know a couple of things more in-depth than, say, some of my classmates know because I've worked problems dealing with that."

He spent last summer at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, where he learned how to help train Air Force cyber protection teams, which are the key to the service's network defense. That hands-on training is what Pentagon leaders are counting on to boost the inchoate cyber workforce.

"We did not have this when I was a cadet, and I think this is so much better for the Air Force that they get a chance to prepare" for a career in cybersecurity, says Capt. Andrew Sellers.

He graduated from the academy in 2005 and has since done a tour in Iraq and received his doctorate from Oxford. Like Carlisle, Sellers sees his role as a mentor and facilitator. The two men set the broad agenda for the training, but it is up to the cadets to forge their own paths in cyberspace.

"They come in with so much better situational awareness," Sellers says, "and a fluency in the technology that we simply didn't have."

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