SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- The 90s and early 2000s saw the de-centralization of communications with the stand down of Air Force Communications Command, and the responsibility for communications and networking realigning to individual installations. While this allowed major commands and installations the ability to acquire and implement technology to best meet mission needs, it resulted in a patchwork of systems and networks with differing standards, operating processes and defensive postures.
However, by the mid-2000s the Air Force looked toward centralizing some of these functions as the importance of cybersecurity was recognized.
On Dec. 7, 2005, then-Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. T. Michael Moseley unveiled a new Air Force mission statement -- “The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests -- to fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace.” The addition of cyberspace as an operational domain highlighted the increasing importance of cyber operations in the Air Force.
In July 2006, the Air Force Network Operations Command was established, aligning all Air Force units charged with network operations under the authority of a single commander, Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., 8th Air Force and AFNETOPS commander.
Five months later, in further recognition of the importance of cyberspace as a warfighting domain, Moseley directed the 8th AF commander to create a new major command to “redefine air power by extending our global power into a new domain -- the domain of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum.”
On Sept. 18, 2007, Headquarters AF Cyber Command (provisional) was activated, with Maj. Gen. William T. Lord taking command.
Air Force Communications Agency provided 55 percent of the headquarters staff and created a cyber-force strategies division to develop 17 new career fields, and associated training and force development programs.
AF Cyber Command's establishment was later paused to focus on reinvigorating the nuclear enterprise, and a numbered Air Force for cyber was set up instead.
In May 2009, the Air Force designated Air Force Space Command to lead this cyber NAF.
“The integration of these domains allows our service to capitalize on inherent synergies found in space and cyberspace architectures, processes, skill sets and training,” said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, then-AFSPC commander.
As part of this transition, AFCA would see a change in its mission responsibilities. The organization became the focal point for shaping, provisioning, sustaining and integrating the enterprise network, and enabling assured core cyberspace capabilities to achieve a warfighting advantage. This drove AFCA’s redesignation as the Air Force Network Integration Center, and realigned AFNIC under AFSPC.
In August 2009, the 24th Air Force was activated under AFSPC to plan and conduct cyberspace operations in support of the nation’s combatant commands and maintain and defend the Air Force Enterprise Network.
“For the first time in the history of the Air Force, we have consolidated cyber capabilities under an operational war fighter solely devoted to cyber operations,” said Maj. Gen. Richard E. Webber, the first 24th AF commander, during the activation ceremony.
In order to simplify network operations and defense for 24th AF, AFNIC executed the largest cyber network overhaul in Air Force history. The AFNET migration, a five-year effort which began in 2009, collapsed 13 MAJCOM unclassified networks into a single, integrated network. It created a centrally managed, standardized structure under the operational control of the 24th Air Force commander. The $162 million effort migrated more than 644,000 user accounts, integrated 275 bases and geographically separated units and decommissioned 11,318 servers.
Until the AFNET migration, Air Force organizations had been operating independent networks, consequently driving unique and unit-specific requirements. The migration provided enterprise-class situational awareness, network scalability and an ability to command and control the network.
Along with the migration, AFNIC provided education, training, crew certification, exercise and mission rehearsal capabilities to cyber operators. AFNIC developed and deployed the simulated training exercise range, a simulator that provided computer network operations experience to improve Air Force and joint cyberspace operations.
Fast forward to July 2018, the Air Force realigned cyber responsibilities from AFSPC to Air Combat Command.
“Air Force cyber capabilities are intertwined with the intelligence, command and control, air superiority, personnel recovery, and precision attack missions that we are responsible for,” said Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of ACC. “This move streamlines how the Air Force presents forces to joint commanders, and it improves our ability to integrate cyber and air operations to improve our effectiveness in multiple domains.”
The continuously advancing nature of technology means that practitioners of cyberspace, communications, and information systems must be versed in change. Whatever is on the digital horizon, the men and women of the Air Force Network Integration Center will be there to meet the challenge.
The 24th Air Force (Air Forces Cyber) is the operational warfighting organization that establishes, operates, maintains and defends Air Force networks to ensure warfighters can maintain the information advantage as U.S. forces prosecute military operations around the world. Read more about the 24th AF's storied history here.