Air Force wants help defending space from cyberattacks

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The Air Force is looking for defensive cyber operations contractor support to protect space weapon systems.

In a request for information issued at the end of March, the 50 th Network Operations Group, which falls under the 50th Space Wing, is soliciting industry cyber defense capabilities to enable protection, detection, response and sustainment of 50th Space Wing cyber defense missions.

The notice was sure to note that 50th Space Wing Space Mission Systems “are distinct from general purpose communications systems such as the NIPRNet and the SIPRNet; the subject of this acquisition is Cybersecurity and DCO for 50 SW Space Mission Systems.”

While the Air Force has its own organic cyber force, this cadre is focused solely on the Air Force portion of the DoD’s information network.

Given that AFCYBER serves as the Air Force or service cyber component to Cyber Command, it has a responsibility to ensure the defense of all Air Force information networks to include, but not limited to Air Force NIPR and SIPRNet, a spokesman from Air Force Space Command told C4ISRNET via email.

“AFCYBER is not prioritized, nor resourced to perform day-to-day defensive missions outside of Air Force NIPRNET and SIPRNET,” they continued. “Because of this, Headquarters Air Force leaders have allowed localized Communications Squadrons to request [mission defense teams] to focus solely on their own installation. Many of which are performed by contracted mission partners.”

The Defense Department as a whole has begun to take seriously the threat posed by unsecured weapons systems, all of which at some level rely on some form of cyber enabled means. Last year, the comptroller’s office notified Congress that it was repurposing $100 million to go towards testing and evaluating cyber vulnerabilities in weapon systems.

From a service perspective, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference last September outlined seven ways the Air Force is battling cyber vulnerabilities in weapons systems;

  1. Mission thread analysis.
  2. Baking in security to future weapons systems.
  3. Develop, attract and foster the proper cyber expertise.
  4. Making weapons systems more capable and resilient.
  5. Creating a common framework for which to talk about and understand security.
  6. Securing older systems still in use.
  7. Intel.

Air Force Space Command’s 50 SW’s notice breaks requirements for potential contractors into three parts:

  • Architecture support, focused mostly on the IT and hardware (ground segments) components of space systems;
  • Technical evaluation and assistance, focused mostly on tools and metrics for cyber defense of weapon systems; and
  • Defensive cyberspace operations improvements, focused mostly on developing and employing defensive cyberspace operations.

When asked if this solicitation is a departure from the way things were done previously or a new attempt to protect and harden ground control stations, the AFSPC spokesman said that it is “an enhancement to measures already in place, based on existing and emerging cyberspace threats.”