Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Air Force Academy's cyber team reaches rare heights

By Tom Roeder Published: January 12, 2014

The team practices four days a week, two hours at a crack.

Members hone their speed and skills, with each gaining specialized skills. And they only sweat when an Internet server crashes.

Meet the Air Force Academy's cyber team, 16 computer warfare students who are ranked fifth in the world.

"We're the top team in the Western Hemisphere," said coach Martin Carlisle, explaining that the four teams they fell behind in a recent 105-team competition hail from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Computer warfare is a top priority for the Air Force, which sees Internet attacks as a key component of future conflicts. Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base is guiding the Air Force's cyber troops.

The cadets aren't fighting real computer battles but rather simulated versions. The most recent game was dubbed "capture the flag" and pitted teams against the clock to attack a network while defending their computers.

Some of the computer war games keep cadets up through the night to battle cyber enemies.

Carlisle said the cadets see a payoff in the long hours, though their team has no bowl games, bands or cheerleaders to drive them to victory.

"They know this will prepare them for what they will be doing in the Air Force," Carlisle said.

While the football team plays against strictly regulated undergraduate foes, the cyber team plays against the pros.

"The cyber team regularly competes against graduate students and professionals around the world," Carlisle said.

Team captain cadet Ryan Zacher of Parker said all that keyboard time brings excitement, too.

During the last competition, "We were getting pretty pumped up, especially at the end," he said.

Zacher is headed to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi for training in cyberwarfare after he graduates. But first he's got to play in the big game.

Everything the cadets have been doing - including monthly computer hacking competitions - is preparing them for the National Security Agency's annual showdown in April.

In the exercise, the nation's military academies attempt to defend networks from a team of National Security Agency hackers.

The secretive agency is believed to be the world's largest electronic spying enterprise and is known to employ the nation's top computer warfare experts.

The Air Force Academy has won the trophy the past two years.

"It's definitely one of our bigger competitions," Zacher deadpanned.

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