This version of the story includes corrected information that Cyber Command has made it a goal, not a mandate, that the Persistent Cyber Training Environment becomes the training platform for the cyber mission force.
WASHINGTON — The Air Force school to prepare airmen to become high-end cyber defenders will introduce an online training tool in its upcoming curriculum.
Designed as the premier training tool for the Department of Defense cyber force, the Persistent Cyber Training Environment (PCTE) allows U.S. Cyber Command’s warriors to log on from anywhere in the world for individual or group training and mission rehearsals. The goal for PCTE is that it will be the training platform for the cyber mission force in the future.
Cyber Command sets training standards for its cyber mission force, fed by the military branches. The command selected the Navy as the joint curriculum lead for defensive cyber operations, and. the Army is manages the PCTE program on behalf of Cyber Command.
Officials at the 39th Information Operations Squadron, which provides airmen initial qualification training for defensive weapon systems before they join cyber protection teams, have worked with the Navy as it finalizes those joint standards. The schoolhouse at the 39th IOS is in the beginning stages of migrating to PCTE, inputting modules from the operational force, lab assignments and even practice ranges.
“The sooner everyone gets on board and moving in that direction is the sooner that we’ll start seeing the benefits from” PCTE, Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams, commander of the 39th IOS, told C4ISRNET.
Overall, training of defensive cyber warriors won’t change a whole lot given they have always used online tools and ranges in the classroom, officials said. What does change with the inclusion of PCTE in the schoolhouse is the variety and complexity of the training ranges, said Capt. Jerrelle Marshall, chief of weapons and tactics at the 39th IOS.
“Having a common set of training goals across the services provides a better opportunity for inter-changeability on cyber missions for the joint cyber operations force,” he said.
Officials said using PCTE will create a more ready force — from better training at the schoolhouse level to more realistic and on-demand training for operational forces — all to a greater benefit to taxpayers.
“From the budget perspective, [uploading operational lessons for students] saves us a heck of a lot of time and money and makes us much better stewards of your taxpayer dollars,” Runyan said.
Because training is conducted in the same environment at the schoolhouse and in operational units, there are resource efficiencies gained from standardization, simplification and automation of the training management processes, Marshall said.
“Instead of reinventing the wheel each time the field requests new training requirements, the schoolhouse has a direct link to entire communities’ worth of lessons learned and best practices, significantly shortening the timeline to go from need to implementation,” he said. “This link also enables tremendous cost savings to the joint community as we scale down the number of fielded independently operated and managed cyber training ranges to a consolidated model.”
The tool comes with a variety of additional benefits. It allows students to rerun practicals or replay scenarios they might have struggled on. They can get hands-on experience with the real tools and environments they’ll encounter in operations against actual threats.
Officials hope that experience will help the Air Force students, who at this level are focused heavily on individual training, more ready to integrate with their units and conduct mission qualification training.
“My personal opinion is that’s going to pay off in spades at the unit level at the mission qual [qualification] training, at the exercises and upgrade team certification for our CPTs out in the field,” said Skip Runyan, a tech adviser at the 39th IOS. “The possibilities that PCTE brings to the fight are enormous.”
This approach differs from traditional training for the broader military, which has limited training times and ranges because people have to practice on the tanks, fighter jets or other equipment they use in missions. What’s more, while the military does its best to replicate threats, it can only go so far. In cyberspace, these units can play against actual strains of malware or networks seen in operations.
“If we’re using the fighter analogy, they’ve got the ability to hop in the F-15 cockpit and do some training when there is a need to do that training. [Airmen] don’t have to schedule themselves for training sorties. The training will always be available,” Williams said. “I think that’s the true power with this new environment.”
Professors’ workload is lightened because PCTE grades students’ lessons.
“The grading aspect takes up a lot of time for the instructors, and if we have the ability to not only grade them with a little bit of the automation built into PCTE but also do some replays from what they’re doing in there, we can actually show them where they went wrong or where they went right in the system,” Runyan said. “That saves a lot of time and effort on the part of the instructor and saves a lot of frustration on the part of the student.”
Marshall explained that instead of instructors spending time thinking up how ranges should be configured, they can now focus their efforts on developing threat-representative scenarios.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.