Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany --
The 480th Aircraft Maintenance Unit’s Avionics Shop here underwent a Combat Shield evaluation March 20–24.
A Combat Shield evaluation team from the 16th Electronic Warfare Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, conducted the annual inspection to gauge the effectiveness of the threat-detection systems and countermeasures aboard the F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned here.
Combat Shield members use a USM-642 Raven signal generator that simulates real-world radar emissions to conduct the testing. The evaluation team hooks the signal generator to an aircraft with cables. Then, the team uses the device to send threat signals, which mimic an enemy attack, to the aircraft. This basically fools the aircraft into to thinking that it is being targeted, said Maj. Paul Rowney, Combat Shield director, 16th EWS.
“The idea is; the aircraft, an F-16 in this case, is not going to be able to prosecute its mission unless it can survive to get into the target area, drop the bombs and then get out again without being shot down,” Rowney said.
Avionics shop maintainers here, who are responsible for maintaining the aircraft threat-warning systems at Spangdahlem, played a critical role during each evaluation.
“There is a maintainer sitting in the cockpit, and he is going tell us whether or not he sees the signal that we are transmitting,” Rowney said.
Throughout the evaluations, maintainers observed the aircraft’s threat-detection systems. The maintainers alerted the inspection team each time an aircraft’s threat-detection systems identified a potential hazard, and, respectively, demonstrated the effectiveness of the electronic warfare systems inside the aircraft here.
“What we found here at the 52nd Fighter Wing is that there is a positive culture for EW systems awareness” said Rowney. “The maintainers and the operators are working together very well together to continue to make those systems mission ready.”
The Combat Shield team also discovered that Spangdahlem has a positive culture for cyber awareness, which plays a key role in maintaining electronic warfare systems’ effectiveness.
“The 52nd Fighter Wing, is much farther along in cyber awareness than any other wing that I know,” said Rowney, whose Combat Shield teams travel to 50 wings a year to conduct evaluations. “Most modern systems use some type of software, some type of operating system. If you have an operating system, you can mess with it in some way and effect it’s outcome.”
For this reason, Rowney and his team capitalized on their time here by meeting with the 52nd Communication Squadron’s cyber unit of “pathfinders,” a group that specializes in cyber security, and one of only 30 such units currently in the Air Force. The Combat Shield team and the pathfinders met to discuss the potential for incorporating simulated cyber-attacks into future aircraft threat-detection system evaluations.
“We got together with them and we mapped out exactly what we could do, right now, with the equipment and the knowledge that we have available, to incorporate the cyber aspect into this Combat Shield eval,” Rowney said. “So, when we show up at wings, we’ll also be looking at how cyber assurance is contributing to the mission.”
“You don’t think of your email or your desktop computer as a weapons system, but the very same things that threaten those might be threatening the jets,” said 1st Lt. Teller Junak, who heads the cyber unit of “pathfinders” for the 52nd Communications Squadron here.
Cyber experts, maintainers and operators all play different rolls in maintaining a wing’s mission assurance, but as technology advances, those rolls are becoming increasingly intertwined. Junak said the Combat Shield team’s visit has helped expedite and facilitate relationships between Spangdahlem Airmen from those career fields – as they all work together to protect and maintain base assets.
Rowley said he hopes to work with more cyber pathfinder units in the future, as the Air Force is standing up more each year. However, for now, he said Combat Shield teams will take the lessons they learn in cyber awareness to each of the wings they visit.
A year ago, I would have said that Combat Shield’s mission was aircrew survivability,” Rowney said. “Now, I say it’s aircrew survivability and mission assurance through cyber awareness.”
The Combat Shield team will provide the 52nd Fighter Wing with inspection results once it compiles and assesses the data it gathered during the evaluations.