Air Force Cyber ​​Unit Moves Software Development Team Downtown

SAN ANTONIO — The U.S. Air Force has moved its only software development squadron to the Light Building in downtown San Antonio, with plans to support the military and private sector while raising its profile in the tech community .

The 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron said 160 developers will work in a 43,000 square foot office on the third floor of the historic building, which it calls Shadow’s Edge, to rapidly create unclassified cyber tools. The Air Force unit will continue to work on classified operations for U.S. Cyber ​​Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

Lt. Col. Casey Miller said about 75% of the 225 workers under his command are civilians and contract employees. The remaining 25% are enlisted military personnel. They work at the base, remotely and now in the Light Building on Broadway Street. A grand opening for Shadow’s Edge is scheduled for October 5th.

Miller believes the move downtown will allow the unit to work with local government agencies, tech companies and universities to recruit software developers, DevOps engineers, managers and product owners.

“Talent is probably the biggest driver for us moving downtown,” Miller said. “What I have in mind for partnership potential is going to be completely destroyed once we get the unit down here and start interacting with people.”

Founded in 2017, the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron – under the 318th Cyberspace Operations Group – creates in-house software for offensive and defensive cyber missions.

“If you think of a normal software company like Facebook, they have a core platform that they build and maintain and update,” said Rebecca Lively, deputy director of the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron. “We, at any one time, are building up to 16 different software to meet 16 different requirements for six different military organizations.”

The 318th COG falls under the 67th Cyberspace Wing, which is described as the “executive arm of the Air Force for conducting global operations in cyberspace.” The 67th Cyberspace Wing reports to the 16th Air Force, also known as Air Forces Cyber, both based at JBSA-Lackland.

DOD in the private sector

Historically, the Department of Defense has had a reputation for being slow to adopt new technologies. But in recent years, the military has placed workers in off-base offices in Texas as it seeks to attract highly skilled workers and learn to produce as fast and as fast as good startups.

The US military chose Austin in 2018 for its Futures Command, whose mission is to bring cutting-edge technology to war.

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In 2019, the Air Force started a software development organization called LevelUP Code Works in San Antonio. Its employees — a mix of military, civilian, and contractors — work out of a Navarro Street office for Air Force and other Department of Defense assignments.

Lt. Col. Richard Lopez, who led the organization at the time, said LevelUP established itself downtown because it’s close to River Walk and the city’s small but bustling tech district. One of the goals, he said, is “to attract and retain the talent we need” to write code for the Air Force.

In recent years, the Air Force has set up several software development factories across the United States, including Kessel Run in Boston, Kobayashi Maru in California, Space Camp in Colorado, and BESPIN in Alabama.

Building software factories “is absolutely an indicator that the Air Force is starting to take software development much more seriously,” Miller said. “But the 90th has gone largely unrecognized because of the specifics of the mission we are performing.”

While LevelUp builds platforms and develops applications for US Cyber ​​Command to support forensic activities, the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron “writes exploits and malware to keep our enemies at risk, in support from US Cyber ​​Command, Miller said. The unit focuses “on offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace”.

The unit assembled a team of developers “working to timelines often measured in weeks or months, sometimes days or hours,” Miller said. “So we don’t have time for years and decades like we’re used to with big government contracts.”

90th in private markets

Attempting to partner with technology companies, the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron authorized
Whiddler
software capable of identifying malicious files or malicious software used to damage computers, networks or servers in order to steal data, hijack computer functions and monitor activity.

While other software scans a network file and determines if it’s malicious, Unity’s technology can specifically look for suspicious items.

In 2020 and 2021, the 67th Cyberspace Wing signed patent licensing agreements with two private sector companies “to extend and improve software code” to detect software vulnerabilities.

The wing also signed
cooperative research and development agreements
or CRADAs, with both companies, allowing them to work on the code and sell it to industry.

Based in Ohio
Ignite Insurance Platform
is one of the software development companies that signed the agreements.

“We’re on a mission to provide cyber risk management automation and governance software to organizations looking to innovate away from slower, cumbersome processes,” the founder and CEO said last year. Ignyte CEO, Max Aulakh.

“Our mission is very complementary to the 16th Air Force Cyber ​​- to generate cyber intelligence, compete and escalate information warfare,” said Aulakh, who served in the Air Force. “The joint agreement between Ignyte and the US Air Force is designed to enhance our capabilities, bringing them to commercial markets.”

Eric Rosenberg – former head of cyber intellectual property law at the 67th Cyberspace Wing, who is now an attorney at US Cyber ​​Command at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland – said at the time that the license agreements of patent and CRADAs” are some of our best tools for convergence and public-private partnership.

Move downtown

The 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron, which largely works with classified information, struggles to attract talent, especially among civilians.

“One of the things we find when we’re recruiting is that people didn’t know that this type of work was something you could do and then get paid to do it and not get arrested,” Lively said.

The unit has been looking for other ways to talk about its unclassified operations, meet with private industry players and tap into the growing pool of tech workers in San Antonio. And unit chiefs believe the recent move downtown could be part of the solution.

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Mixing with the private sector meant changing long-held views on keeping all cyber missions on base.

Ultimately, it took unit heads working with remote developers during the COVID-19 pandemic to consider the possibility of opening an office elsewhere in the city.

“COVID was one of many things that finally opened the eyes of squadron members — but also our leadership — to realize that a move like this was even possible,” Miller said. “Before COVID, everything we did was done in a classified facility, and just discussing something like that made people uncomfortable.”

Unit leaders debated what should remain classified as the military continues to conduct cyber warfare operations. They decided that if they wanted to keep much of the information out of public view, they could declassify other projects, especially when using open source cybersecurity tools already in use in academia and the private sector.

“We have discovered that there are many things we can do without classification. And if we’re willing to move in that direction, it opens up the fact that we exist with a bunch of people that we didn’t have before and gives us the chance to move the unit downtown to be closer to other government entities and civilian entities,” Miller said.

The unit sought a space in central San Antonio and landed on the Light Building being renovated on Broadway, where Express-News is also a tenant. It began moving office furniture and computers into the space in July.

“We were excited about the possibility of being able to build whatever space we want rather than moving to another building downtown that has already decided where the walls go,” Lively said. “We were looking for the possibility of adapting the building to our needs.”

Unit leaders said the Light Building is secure enough to handle their unclassified operations.

“Our people were home doing this during COVID,” Lively said. “If you can do it at home, you can do it here.”

Recruitment

From its downtown post, the Air Force is now expanding its recruiting reach, with plans to hire an additional 21 positions this year to work at base, remote, or the Shadow’s Edge office. Miller also plans to have interns from the University of Texas at San Antonio working in the Light Building.

He hopes the downtown space will be an incentive, as developers seek downtown apartments rather than apartments closer to the military base.

A predictable challenge in recruiting is attracting the kind of tech workers who are among the best paid in the city, with an average annual salary of $88,017 in 2020, compared to $55,940 among workers in all other city ​​industries, according to data from the Texas Workforce. Commission.

Lively said the unit has hired developers who have expressed an interest in working on Air Force cyber missions that could have global reach.

“We’ve found a lot of people who will take massive pay cuts to come work here,” Lively said. “We try to pay reasonable wages, and we’ve been able to be quite competitive.”

eric.killelea@express-news.net

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