WASHINGTON — The Air Force is ensuring its mission essential cyber training goes on during the global COVID-19 pandemic but officials are also delaying some training related to the service’s networks.

“When all this kicked off, we prioritized all of the mission essential courses that are supplying operators to the cyber mission force. We wanted to make sure that those units continue to get the trained operations that they needed so that their readiness levels didn’t suffer,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams, commander of the 39th Information Operations Squadron, which provides intermediate cyber weapons system training to airmen, told C4ISRNET.

The cyber mission force are the teams each of the services provide up to U.S. Cyber Command. In addition to training cyber mission force personnel, the 39th IOS also trains specific weapon systems for the Air Force network (AFNET), which were either postponed or reduced class size to ensure students are safe.

The reduction in those Air Force specific courses have allowed the mission essential courses to reduce in person class sizes for classified work that can’t be done remotely to ensure the proper social distancing measures are taken.

To learn outside the classroom, the schoolhouse is relying on a partnership with Carnegie Mellon for an entirely online cyberspace fundamentals course, Microsoft Teams and WebEx.

Students also don’t have to necessarily travel to the 39th in Hurlburt Field, Florida for some training. They can remotely take courses such as the cyber fundamentals course online saving money for temporary duty travel.

Williams said he expects to see more of that in the future.

The remote tools have also allowed students to gain a unique experience with members of the operational force, while simultaneously saving the taxpayer money.

Students are able to hear from operational commanders and operators and even participate in exercises with units. Previously, the students would have to travel to those units to participate, but now, they can dial in.

“That helps us in the classroom hit it home. We get those war stories to use in the classroom and the students actually, those light bulbs start to turn on and it really starts to hit home,” TSgt Jonathan Zinski, a course instructor, said. “Now that we have more of an eye-opening capability to use some of our virtual tools, we’ve actually been able to enroll and participate an entire team of instructors and cadre here at the 39th IOS to participate in a no-kidding virtual exercise with an operational unit to not only hone our skills and help some of our instructors here bring the lessons learned into the classroom but to also help the operational units from our standpoint and help them get better at their jobs.”

This experience also gives the students a flavor of what to expect at their units prior to arriving.

Officials explained that while the actual courseware didn’t change, the schoolhouse shifted the courseware and maneuvered the syllabus to accommodate students doing a combination of distance learning and in person classes. They looked at what courses needed to be conducted in person, then worked around that to ensure the class sizes were small enough while supplementing with remote learning tools.

The pandemic has also accelerated certain initiatives the school planned to undertake at a later date. Williams said one includes combining cyber mission force and AFNET defensive cyber training.

He said they are re-imagining the defensive cyber training pipeline with something they’re calling defensive cyber operations initial qualification training.

“Instead of creating a blanket training for each of these weapon systems, we’re trying to integrate the AFNET systems with the CMF where it makes sense and also tailor the training,” he said, noting this should be up and running in October regardless of COVID-19.

This re-imagining was always planned, but Williams said COVID accelerated it.

The adaptations the 39th has been forced to make as a result of the pandemic has rendered some valuable lessons as well.

Williams said some initiatives never would have been considered if the pandemic didn’t hit. He explained officials are turning a conference room into a recording studio so instructors can either deliver training to students in a separate room or record lectures for students to view later.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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