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Maj Gen James K. 'Kevin' McLaughlin.
Maj Gen James K. 'Kevin' McLaughlin. ()
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The 24th Air Force is the operational war fighting organization that establishes, operates, maintains and defends Air Force networks. Since June 2013, Maj. Gen. James “Kevin” McLaughlin has commanded the 24th Air Force and Air Forces Cyber. Prior to assuming his current position, McLaughlin was the Director of Space Operations, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C. McLaughlin was recently interviewed by C4ISR & Networks writer John Edwards about the 24th Air Force’s mission, goals and challenges, as well as its relationships with Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and other agencies.

How has 24th Air Force evolved over the past few years since its launch?

McLaughlin: [The] 24th Air Force has shifted the Air Force’s focus from a network assurance mindset, worried about uptime, availability, etc., to a mission-assurance mindset, focusing on the key cyber terrain necessary for mission success. Once we got our footing as an organization, we started looking beyond core Air Force networks and started planning and establishing ways to provide capabilities to joint commanders. We have normalized and formalized our cyber unit structure. Two of the wings assigned to us in 2009, the 67th Network Warfare Wing and the 688th Information Operations Wing, have transitioned to become cyberspace wings, a nomenclature similar to Air Force air and space operations units.

The 24th Air Force has developed in several other significant ways since its establishment on Aug. 18, 2009. The organization has supported a range of U.S. Air Force and joint cyberspace operations through planning and execution, with a focus on defensive cyberspace operations and mission assurance.

In addition, the 24th Air Force has refined its participation in exercises and has codified its support to U.S. Air Force and joint force missions. The 24th Air Force has also seen its relationships with other organizations and agencies mature over the past four years, particularly with U.S. Cyber Command and Air Force Space Command. The 24th Air Force has matured its service component role to USCYBERCOM after being designated Air Forces Cyber (AFCYBER) in 2010.

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On the Air Force side, (the) 24th Air Force helped secure the designation of six cyberspace weapon systems in March 2013 to normalize the U.S. Air Force budget and sustainment process for cyberspace capabilities. It has also undergone several important organizational changes during its existence as well. The combat communications mission set has been streamlined and realigned with the inactivation of the 689th Combat Communications Wing. The 5th Combat Communications Group now reports directly to me as the 24th Air Force commander.

Finally, the 24th Air Force has played a leading role in the development and implementation of the U.S. Air Force portion of the Cyber Mission Force, helping to organize, train and equip the more than 1,700 Airmen to fill cyberspace jobs across the command. In its short existence as a numbered air force, the 24th Air Force has made important strides toward the operationalization and normalization of cyberspace operations in the Air Force.

What tasks is the 24th Air Force currently focusing on?

McLaughlin: We are currently focused on three lines of effort. We operate the Air Force Information Network, ensuring the Air Force portion of the cyber domain is available and secure for Department of Defense and Air Force missions to be conducted there. We defend the Air Force Information Network, key mission systems and specified networks including the core Air Force Network, key Air Force mission terrain, as well as missions and cyber key terrain of interest to joint commanders. We engage the adversary by presenting Air Force capabilities aligned with combatant command priorities, but we are most focused on problem sets of interest to the air component.

We have stood up a Joint Force Headquarters-Cyber, which plans, prepares and executes cyberspace operations in support of combatant commander objectives. This headquarters had initial operational capability in mid-October of 2013. Currently, the new headquarters is leveraging 24th Air Force staff and the 624th Operations Center to interface with the supported combatant commands and U.S. Cyber Command, and to provide command and control of assigned cyber forces. It is working closely with Air Force Space Command to ensure the right manning for the future capability demands.

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The Air Force is partnering across the Department of Defense to do things collaboratively, as is necessary in this resource constrained environment. An example of this is the Air Force’s commitment to the Joint Information Environment. We want to be sure the JIE will increase operational effectiveness for the entire department. The 24th Air Force is currently leading the fielding and operationalization of the Joint Regional Security Stacks. These will provide a common defensive perimeter for all combatant commands, services, and agencies, enable a single security architecture, improve shared awareness of threats, and improve command and control. We are leading this effort because our organization has the greatest expertise based upon the improvements we have made in fielding the Air Force gateways, which provided similar benefits for the Air Force.

How are budget concerns affecting the 24th Air Force?

McLaughlin: Cyber is a high priority for senior leaders and we have been asked to grow to meet the increasing demand. At the same time, we are subject to the same cuts and pressures of sequestration, such as reduced travel budgets, headquarters staff reductions, etc. We are examining the spectrum of cyber missions to ensure we are properly allocating our available resources to areas that provide the greatest benefit to the Air Force and joint community. This may require a divestiture of particular mission sets that are no longer supportable with given resources, particularly when there is growth in other areas. As Air Forces Cyber we are under the same budget pressures that effect all of the services. The specter of continued sequestration presents daunting challenges for both current operations and planned future investment. With the emphasis on cyber operations in the just released Quadrennial Defense Review we are cautiously optimistic that critical priorities will be addressed.

What is your relationship with the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency? In what ways does Air Force Cyber Command support Air Force ISR?

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McLaughlin: We have a very close working relationship with the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency and we provide each other enhanced capabilities. We rely on their cyber ISR capabilities and efforts as we conduct cyberspace operations — these capabilities are absolutely critical to success in the domain. 24th Air Force supports a subset of ISR missions, for example, we provide a ‘cyber escort’ to select Remotely Piloted Aircraft missions, which means we have our cyber operators very closely following the mission to ensure nothing in cyberspace can interrupt it. In our partnership, we have co-developed a platform that provides the Air Force cyber indications and warning of activities of interest to us in cyberspace. We are working side-by-side with them to establish the Air Force’s portion of the Cyber Mission Force. We each bring our own unique capabilities to bear in the cyberspace domain.

What is your relationship with various other cyber commands, including U.S. Cyber Command?

McLaughlin: As Air Forces Cyber, we are the Air Force component to U.S. Cyber Command, responsible for planning and executing cyberspace operations tasked by the commander of U.S. Cyber Command. We work very closely with the other service cyber components, coordinating efforts to ensure we are meeting USCYBERCOM requirements, incorporating lessons learned, and participating in strategically important exercises, such as Red Flag.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge currently facing the 24th Air Force?

McLaughlin: Our biggest challenge currently is a combination of two things: obtaining full situational awareness and increasing our capacity to conduct cyberspace operations as will be needed in the near future. These challenges are co-dependent — one is relatively useless without the other. The cyber domain is a rapidly changing operational environment. We have substantial capability, but are constantly working to scale that capability to meet the expanding demand of our combatant commanders and Air Force leaders. This means expanding training capacity while continuing to deliver a world-class curriculum.

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What are your future plans?

McLaughlin: Conquering our current challenges in the domain, and anticipating future demands for cyberspace operations in Department of Defense planning and operations are what we have set our sights on. We are focused on meeting the Air Force’s requirement for the Cyber Mission Force construct. This means bringing Air Force-unique skills and core competencies to provide capabilities and create effects for combatant command and service priorities.

Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to share?

McLaughlin: 24th Air Force is committed to assuring the protection of the Air Force Network and ensuring that friendly forces maintain a war fighting advantage throughout the cyber domain. We are using our skill sets to facilitate the core missions of the Air Force. We are operating in the cyber domain to support those core missions, and missions in support of the joint operations environment. We are working hard with our joint counterparts and through our Air Force Space Command headquarters to ensure our resources are focused on the nation's security priorities.

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