Academy introduces computer network security major

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By Don Branum, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs / Published August 12, 2014

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) --

Even as the U.S. Air Force Academy has reduced the number of majors it offers recently, it has instituted a new program aimed at helping the Air Force fly, fight and win in cyberspace.

The computer network security major touches on topics designed to help cadets understand what the cyberspace domain is and how the Air Force will establish cyberspace superiority in future conflicts, said Dr. Martin Carlisle, the Academy’s Computer Science Department head for the 2014-2015 academic year.

"The Air Force Academy is committed to producing highly qualified officers to serve in cyber career fields," he said. "This is a time when the Academy is reducing majors, which shows how important we think this mission field is."

The department is creating new classes for cadets majoring in computer network security, Carlisle said. One class will introduce cadets to reverse software engineering, letting cadets analyze viruses and other malware to figure out how it operates. By knowing how a piece of malware works, experts can block it from their networks or even take out its command and control mechanisms.

Another class will focus on computer forensics.

"If a criminal or espionage act has occurred, we can figure out what the perpetrator did and how they did it," Carlisle said. "That allows us to build a chain of evidence."

The program will also include strategy, political science and law classes. The Academy's existing class on cyberspace law can help future legal officers advise commanders whether an enemy action in cyberspace constitutes an attack, said Maj. Robert Palmer during an interview in May.

"Cyber weapons don't always fit that (kinetic strike) model," Palmer said. "Does it count as a use of force if I use a zero-day exploit to enter an adversary's computer network? In the cyber realm, consequences are often far less identifiable and quantifiable."

Three juniors and about 25 sophomores are enrolled in the major, Carlisle said, and the curriculum is set up so cadets don't have to decide right away.

"In fall of their three-degree year, cadets will take Computer Science 210," he said. "They can think about which discipline might be best. They can go into any of our three majors without having to decide up front."

Cadets 2nd Class Justin Niquette will be one of the first to graduate with the new major when he enters the Air Force in a year and a half. Niquette said he shifted from his original major of computer science because he wanted to learn how to keep adversaries out of critical systems.

"I like how computer science allows you to create something from nothing and solve everyday problems in a logical way," Niquette said. "However, I felt that the only way to create secure programs and systems is to have a strong understanding of both offensive and defensive aspects of cyber."

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