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Cracking the code: LEAP Scholars study cybersecurity in today’s military

  • Published
  • By Lori Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Team

Our world is more connected today than ever, and cybersecurity is as essential to the basic functioning of the American economy as to our national defense structure. The National Cybersecurity Strategy emphasizes strengthening the privacy of our data, communications, and national defense and close cooperation with the private sector to protect Americans from malicious cyber campaigns targeting our security and privacy.

As such, seven Language Enabled Airmen Program Scholars and one guide traveled to Germany earlier this year as part of a special guided Language Intensive Training Event, or LITE, the centerpiece of which was participation in the 10th Annual CODE Conference at the University of Bundeswehr in Munich. The CODE Conference, which was also an immersive experience in the German language and culture, allowed LEAP Scholars to hear keynote speakers ranging from cutting-edge IT researchers to speakers from the Federal Ministry of Defense, the Inspector Cyber and Information Space, the Federal Intelligence Service, and the Office for Security in Information Technology. The conference’s second portion allowed competitors to test their skills by creatively solving cyber challenges and pitching their solutions to panelists.

One of the goals of the educational experience was for the participants to exercise the skills necessary to be part of the United States’ long-term commitment to cyber education through language and culture.

“The extent to which we interact with cyber and its impact on our daily lives today is something we simply don’t think much about. I challenge you to find something electronic from multimillion-dollar weapons systems to your day-to-day electronics at home that don’t have ones and zeros flowing through them,” said Col. Anthony J. Sampson, Air University Cyber Chair, Associate Dean and Instructor, Air War College. “We’re all connected to satellite technology from our smartphones to the smart devices in our homes to the equipment we use on the battlefield. We’re dependent on those connections, and where we’re dependent, there’s the opportunity for accidental disruption or deliberate attacks.”

According to Sampson, one thing the cyber community understands and is trying to get others outside the community to understand is that ‘Cyber’ isn’t about the “ones and zeros” but mission assurance. 

“Cyber isn’t in all our jobs, but mission assurance is. You have a mission, and your job – particularly as leaders – is to ensure your mission is successfully executed. There are risks to your mission posed by the cyber domain, which you should understand and ensure to educate your team on. Sometimes, we might have to break out the backup communications plan and practice using it. Sacrificing some operational convenience for increased security might prove mission essential and prevent mission failure,” Sampson said.

For the LEAP Scholars, traveling to Germany presented an opportunity to learn from European cyber experts working on the front lines of cyberattacks that have become unique case studies worldwide.

“Being at the CODE Conference, we were able to discuss one of the first German national cyber catastrophes in person with the government representative from the state in which the cyberattack occurred,” explained Dr. Sandra Schoder, who is part of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center detachment at Air University and the program organizer and guide for the LEAP Scholars in Germany. “He discussed the incident like a case study because of his role during the event, detailing how the government handled moving on from the attack. He also gave updates on the situation and the many lessons learned. That cyberattack shut down a community, which meant no one on the city roster could be paid, students in pre-K couldn’t get food, and everything in the municipal site had to be rebuilt from the ground up. To go from that point to how they have improved their cybersecurity truly made for a great case study discussion.”

For Senior Master Sgt. Benjamin Wilson, Superintendent, 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, the guided LITE was an opportunity to take a deep dive into practicing his target language, brush up on German culture, and overcome some highly complex topics – government policy and strategy.

“The cyber immersion guided LITE was an excellent opportunity to get a first-hand look at how one of our strongest allies in NATO handles cyber and space operations. Having the chance to grow my knowledge on partner-military operations, increase my language capabilities, and strengthen bonds with our allies in one three-week trip was an amazing experience,” Wilson added.

Special Agent Schyler Turpin said the LITE also left him with the additional cultural knowledge of working with his German counterparts.
“Having improved my understanding of Germany’s approach to cybersecurity, I am now better equipped to identify and recognize potential opportunities for future collaboration with our NATO partners. In addition to the focus on cyber, the event provided ample opportunity to learn about local, regional, and national history in organic environments,” Turpin said.

According to Wilson, LITEs are opportunities LEAP Scholars should take advantage of when available. These “one-of-a-kind experiences” are unmatched in terms of training.

“Guided LITEs with a specific focus area in military operations are a one-of-a-kind experience.  Even if your specialty is not the area of focus, don’t be shy about applying for the event. The course curriculum put together by our DLI instructor did an excellent job of introducing the topic and specific terms in the target language before we met with our counterparts in the German military for discussions,” Wilson said.

In 2021 and 2022, the AFCLC held cyber-focused LITEs at Air University for multiple language cohorts. This cyber-focused LITE was the first held overseas in the target region and culture, reaffirming the AFCLC’s commitment to developing cyber awareness through the lens of language and culture.

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