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Airmen get computer 'weapon system' just in time for Colorado Springs symposium

January 28, 2016 Updated: January 28, 2016 at 8:50 pm
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photo - The keynote speaker for next week's Rocky Mountain Cyber Symposium will be Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten, whose command oversees the service's efforts in cyberspace.
The keynote speaker for next week's Rocky Mountain Cyber Symposium will be Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten, whose command oversees the service's efforts in cyberspace. 

Air Force Space Command has declared its first cyber "weapons system" operational as a conference of computer warfare experts gets ready to kick off in Colorado Springs.

The weapon, deemed fully operational this month, is basically a big firewall designed to protect the Air Force's internal 1 million-user network from hackers. It will be a hot topic at the Rocky Mountain Cyber Symposium, which is expected to draw hundreds of computer experts to The Broadmoor for a four-day confab starting Monday.

The Air Force has been upping its focus on computer warfare and the keynote speaker at the symposium is Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten, whose command oversees the service's efforts in cyberspace. One of Hyten's goals has been to get the tools used by computer warfare airmen designated as weapons - the same title given to planes, bombs guns and satellites.

The biggest reason for the weaponization push is financial: When it comes to budget battles, weapons, even those with a keyboard and a mouse, get cash from Congress.

"Designating something as a weapons system really does help us justify our funding," Col. Pamela Wooley, who commands the Alabama-based 26th Cyberspace Operations Group, which includes the new weapon. "It also helps us with our training because it helps us define better training systems. It is really pretty exciting for our airmen."

The symposium, sponsored by the local chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, has grown substantially in recent years as the military has awoken to computer-borne threats. Commanders say things like the new firewall "weapon" are crucial because enemies - jihadists, disgruntled teenagers and nation states - can attack U.S. interests online for the cost of a cheap laptop.

Wooley's unit has joined a seven-year effort to make the Air Force's network more defensible. The service once had 100 entry points where its network intersected with the public Internet. That meant computer warfare airmen had 100 gates to defend.

Now, Wooley said the Air Force just has 16 of those gates.

Getting the tighter defenses and the weapons-system designation for Internet defense has also allowed the computer airmen time to join in wargames focused on thwarting hackers.

"We are playing in some big exercises now," Wooley said.

Troops under Wooley's command will be at The Broadmoor next week to pick up lessons from the civilian world.

Speakers include Dale Zabriskie, the top technologist for computer security firm Symantec and John Stewart, head of security for network builder Cisco.

There will be a big military component, too, with some sessions requiring a federal security clearance for attendees including a talk from Air Force cyberspace warfare leader Maj. Gen Ed Wilson.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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