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Cyber Evolution: 16th Weather Squadron

  • Published
  • By Paul Shirk
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs

This is the first of a three-part series covering 557th Weather Wing’s cyber evolution, part of its overall effort to incorporate its capabilities into the Sixteenth Air Force, the first Information Warfare Numbered Air Force.


The 16th Weather Squadron is leading the way, reorganizing to become the 557th Weather Wing’s dedicated software and innovation squadron, a move that will generate new insights on environmental intelligence for combatant commanders around the globe.


When complete, the reorganization will reinforce 16th WS’s culture of science and technological innovation and warfighter ethos, contributing to the National Defense Strategy’s line of effort to reform the Defense Department for greater lethality and performance.


“We are building a squadron to develop, operate and deploy environmental intelligence software applications on multiple platforms, that includes traditional high performance computing, the cloud and the edge computing device,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Cunningham, 16th WS commander. “In a peer conflict, as the cyberspace environment becomes contested, we desire flexibility and maneuverability with our software.”


One of several squadrons with organic cyber capabilities in the 2nd Weather Group, 16th WS is the 557th WW’s source for actionable environmental intelligence and is responsible for global modeling and data assimilation; high resolution modeling and cloud analysis and forecasting.


Creating software applications at the speed of operational relevance for Information Warfare units of the 16th Air Force requires a more efficient production and approval process. For that reason, the 16th WS is now a squadron of software development and security and operations teams, known as DevSecOps teams, organized in four flights:


-The Core Models Flight operates global and regional models software that inform forecasts to support mission planning.


-The Tailored Models and Applications Flight operates software that produces warfighter tailored and mission-focused forecast parameters, such as volcanic ash, turbulence, aircraft icing, etc.


-The Data Science and Analytics Flight mines, quality controls, delivers and stores data for use in weather model verification and downstream applications. It also prototypes and operates artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data software applications.


-The Special Capabilities Flight rapidly prepares and prototypes cyberspace platforms for the squadron’s software teams.


For these flights to perform at their full potential, a democratization of knowledge is needed. Weather and Cyber Airmen are learning about each other’s fields to become multi-capable Airmen.


Tech. Sgt. Andrew Kobularcik, 16th WS Tailoring and Innovation Flight chief, became one of the squadron’s first Weather Airmen to become a Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional.


Kobularcik explained, “CSSLP certification ensures awareness of secure processes that one needs to know in order to ensure that your software is built to defend itself against malicious people or things.”


Having Airmen like Kobularcik who are bilingual, speaking both weather and cyber, ensures that applications are designed securely and meet the needs of the warfighters who ultimately use them.


Multi-capable Airmen will be useful as the squadron takes on two other challenges: making their software survivable; and reducing the amount of time and number of steps it takes to design, approve and disseminate applications.


One method of flexibility Cunningham referred to resides in the cloud. Multiple projects are underway to make the squadron’s software adaptable for commercial cloud computing platforms.


“Software organizations created after the birth of cloud computing platforms, circa late 2000s, bring new amazing capabilities to bear on their business problems,” Cunningham said. “They are not weighed down by legacy technology, processes, and systems. Organizations that existed before the 2000s are being leapfrogged in capability by these new organizations. In the 16th WS, we are creating a new hybrid software organization that can leverage multiple types of platforms, including the cloud, to create and enhance environmental intelligence data.”


Where traditional cloud computing resources are unavailable or not practical, an alternative means of supporting the warfighter is physically getting computing resources closer to where it’s needed. The Edge Computing project plans to use portable datacenters, the size of a carry-on suitcase, which can be used in the field.


Both the cloud and edge computing initiatives are based in hardware, yet another approach relies on a simplified software development cycle to drive fast innovation.


“To rapidly deploy software for warfighter needs and make it available, commanders need the right mix of authorities and fast approval chains,” Cunningham said.


Long term, Cunningham hopes improved production methods and streamlined approval chains will reduce turnaround time on projects from weeks and months to minutes. This will be important in the future.


“In the past, we had the luxury of being able to have single track meteorologists and programmers,” Cunningham said. “Today, our Airmen have to be multi-capable with cyber security, software engineering, data science, data engineering, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and environmental sciences – all of these areas we’re being asked to tackle in this squadron. Technically, it’s becoming more complex. And it’s becoming more difficult to produce results as approval authorities lie across multiple organizations, not necessarily within our command chain. We are tackling both of these areas head-on!”


By reorganizing for success and maximizing its resiliency, the 16th WS’s cyber journey is well underway; however, the road ahead is still uncharted. Cunningham likes to reference a line from “Back to the Future Part II,” “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” The 16th WS is charting its own path and inviting the rest of the Air Force to keep up.