SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.: The Air Force Network Integration Center may be an organization that many Airmen aren’t familiar with, but it has a very significant charter that ultimately affects every Airman, every day.
The center, located here at Scott Air Force Base, is a direct reporting unit of Air Force Space Command at Peterson AFB, Colo. As such, AFNIC professionals work closely with members of other Air Force organizations to shape, provision, sustain and integrate the Air Force enterprise network to enable assured cyber capabilities for the service, and ultimately the joint warfighter.
Some of the goals experts here are tackling may seem like science fiction, according to AFNIC officials: A single integrated network in which ground, air and space communications systems are all compatible and information is seamlessly shared; Airmen at home station are quickly and efficiently connecting with other warfighters anywhere in the world at lightning speed; Airmen are accessing their accounts and important information in minutes whether stateside or at a forward operating base on the other side of the world; Everyone in the Department of Defense communicating at the speed of need through synchronized systems.
“Everything we do in the Air Force, and even in the joint environment, has a cyber aspect,” said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, AFSPC commander, during a recent visit to AFNIC. “We need the AFNIC to ensure we have the right access to the cyber domain, and we need the AFNIC to continue to shape and maintain those capabilities.”
The mission evolves
The center’s roots trace back to 1938 with the establishment of the Army Airways Communications Service. There was no cyber domain to shape and protect, but the mission was essentially the same: provide a unified system to deliver reliable capabilities to the warfighter. AACS specialists provided standardization to the development and acquisition of air traffic control systems and air-to-ground communications, and their success helped to solidify communications as an indispensable component of military operations.
Over the next 60 years, the name of the organization has changed several times — Air Force Communications Service (1961); Air Force Communications Command (1979); Air Force Command, Control, Communications and Computer Agency (1993); Air Force Communications Agency (1996) — and the breadth of knowledge and core competencies continued to grow and evolve. However, through it all the organization remains a focal point for providing communications capabilities to Airmen in support of global operations.
With an ever expanding use and dependence on cyberspace, the nation’s leaders realized the realm was in essence another battlefield that deserved the same attention, discipline and protection as air, space, sea and ground operations, a distinction that is made in the new Air Force mission of “fly, fight and win … in air, space and cyberspace.”
In 2009, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley issued a joint letter to Airmen on the alignment and importance of the service’s cyberspace mission, saying: “Without question, cyberspace is vital to today’s fight and to the future U.S. military advantage over our adversaries. It is the intent of the United States Air Force to provide a full spectrum of cyberspace capabilities to joint force commanders whenever and wherever needed.”
As part of the alignment, AFSPC was designated the lead command for cyber operations, and officials established the new 24th Air Force, the service’s component to U.S. Cyber Command, to enable “seamless” cyber operations. AFNIC also was aligned under AFSPC with the task of shaping, provisioning, integrating and sustaining the network for 24th AF leaders to command and control, and upon which all Air Force warfighters would operate.
“We have key responsibilities across a number of AF cyberspace functions and our fingerprints are on just about anything and everything when it comes to cyber,” said Col. John Odey, the AFNIC commander. “Everything we do has a direct impact on the warfighting capability of every single Airman in the United States Air Force…contributing to that mission assurance for our joint warfighters is a very demanding and complex business.”
A Single Integrated Network Environment
As technology evolved, the Air Force’s networks became more complex and disjointed. Today, the service essentially uses three separate network environments — terrestrial, air and space — that are able to share little information among each other. Additionally, those three networks are separate from sister service and coalition networks, which can result in information gaps, confusion, frustration and limited capabilities to the warfighters. Because of this, Air Force leaders directed the development of a single integrated network environment to provide a seamless flow of information among air, space and terrestrial layers, and most importantly, complete mission assurance to the warfighter.
This led to the creation of AFNIC, an organization with more than 900 people focused on shaping, integrating, provisioning and sustaining the Air Force network. The center does not own the network; it provides the network. And, it does not own or create many of the programs operated on the network, but rather provides the platform on which to operate those capabilities safely, reliably and on demand. But before the capabilities can be delivered to the warfighter, they must be architected. They must be compatible. They must be secure.
“In many ways, AFNIC is the center of gravity and engine behind how we conduct cyberspace operations,” Colonel Odey said. “In order to provide mission assurance to the warfighter, you have to have a large number of elements in place. We begin by establishing the enterprise architecture, which serves as the roadmap from where we are today to where we need to be in the future.”
To accomplish such an immense task, AFNIC is organized into six directorates: Architecture and Analysis, Enterprise Capabilities, Integration Engineering, Information Assurance, Enterprise Systems and Plans and Programs. Their responsibilities are closely related, and success depends on coordination and collaboration both inside and outside the center.
“It’s very difficult to capture the thousand and one things that go on daily across AFNIC,” Colonel Odey said. “But at the end of the day, what AFNIC is all about is delivering the network to 24th Air Force to operate, command and control and defend, as well as providing operational cyberspace capabilities to the warfighter.”
To provide these capabilities, members of the AFNIC team are working to do just what the mission states: be the focal point for shaping, provisioning, sustaining and integrating the enterprise network and enabling assured core cyber capabilities to achieve warfighting advantage. People at the center actively engage with AFSPC, 24th AF, all MAJCOMs and many other Air Force organizations to help:
Shape and develop future network architecture and engineering design by ensuring requirements and support for network operations are integrated up front so the AFNet will be compatible with DOD, coalition and other U.S. agency networks as needed. A significant part of this is ensuring information assurance, or security, requirements are in place so Airmen can operate in a safe, secure environment without fear of compromising the mission.
Provision the network through support to AFSPC’s initiatives to standardize, characterize and operationalize the network. AFNIC officials provide direct support through deployed teams of cyber security experts to discover capability inadequacies, apply security standards and other strategies to ensure robust global connectivity. The center’s Technology and Interoperability Facility also enables specialists to test capabilities in an emulated network environment before launching to the Air Force network.
Integrate the network through development of cyber standards, services and information sharing solutions. AFNIC officials also support AFSPC in strategic insertion initiatives that ensure compatibility and quality service delivery of new technologies.
Sustain and deliver the network by modernizing systems, providing logistics and operational support, developing strategies to efficiently use bandwidth, providing effective information assurance, and developing training programs for cyber professionals.
One of the most highly visible projects AFNIC people are involved in is the Air Force enterprise Network migrations, formerly known as ADX. AFNet is a major consolidation of the service’s terrestrial networks. The program brings together existing MAJCOM-centric and “stand alone” networks, email and directory services into a single, centrally-managed system within the Air Force under 24 AF.
The consolidation further takes the Air Force on a direct path as a major element of a holistic DOD enterprise infrastructure. The migrations streamline and improve security, lower operational costs and standardize the system so Airmen can access the network anytime, anyplace. Consolidation is expected to be complete within the next two years and will be a significant milestone in the formation of a holistic single integrated network environment.
A key piece of the migration already in place is Email for Life, or E4L, in which every Air Force user — active duty, Guard, Reserve, civilian and contractor — was given an email address with the universal extension “us.af.mil.” These emails are active and, for those in legacy networks, linked to base-specific “afbase.mil,” “.gov,” and some “.edu” email addresses. The E4L address stays with an Airman as long as he or she is associated with the Air Force, through PCS and deployments, providing value to the Air Force through reliable, persistent communication between assignments while decreasing costs by centralizing administration.
Ready for the future
Technology continues to advance at an exponential rate. New threats are emerging around the world. The Air Force is evolving to create new partnerships to support joint warfighting efforts. AFNIC officials are postured to help ensure the cyberspace realm is ready.
“In everything we do, the first thing we keep in mind is ‘how does this fit into the joint architecture?'” Colonel Odey said. “We are 100 percent all in and on board with working with the U.S. Cyber Command and the entire DOD community to drive forward with joint cyber capabilities.”
No matter how the technology evolves or how new threats present themselves, Colonel Odey is confident the AFNIC professionals are ready to meet the warfighters’ needs, now and in the future.
“The Air Force is where it is today in many respects due to the men and women who have served within this organization” he said. “The men and women of AFNIC — military, civilian and contractors — are central to how we conduct Air Force cyber operations and Air Force-at-large air, space and cyberspace warfighting missions.”