The Air Force’s 39th Information Operations Squadron is not a standard schoolhouse. Responsible for providing cyber and information operations training, the 39th IOS instead looks like an operations squadron.

Airmen come to the squadron to learn how to become cyberwarriors who can use cyber weapon systems the same way pilots learn to fly at flight school.

As the Air Force expects cyber to play a critical role in future conflicts, schools like the 39th become increasingly important in preparing airmen for that battlespace.

The squadron provides initial qualification training in cyber and information operations for airman to plan and execute missions requiring cyberspace operations and information operations capabilities. This, officials said during Fifth Domain’s visit to the squadron, which is located at Hurlburt Field, Florida, is separate from the initial skills training airman receive in cyber.

The 39th provides foundational training for skills and weapon systems, giving trainees everything they need to know for operations. But if there’s a specialty, they will learn those skills in mission qualification training when they arrive at their operations squadron.

“Our focus is producing ready airmen initially qualified in the respective cyber weapon systems,” Lt. Col. Angela Waters, the squadron’s commander, told Fifth Domain.

On the cyber side, the schoolhouse has two distinct tracks: one for the cyber mission force (CMF) personnel that feed up to U.S. Cyber Command and one for defense of the Air Force Information Network (AFIN).

The dedicated roles are intended to get away from a one-size-fits-all training model. Leaders specifically tailor courses based on the students’ experience and assigned mission.

The 39th, however, does not cover all the CMF training. Airmen will likely receive additional joint training related to the joint standards set forth by U.S. Cyber Command. After the 39th IOS schoolhouse, students will get their work-specific training from a CMF perspective, Waters said.

The squadron takes a weapon system model for training airmen and follows the Air Force’s approach for initial qualification for a weapon system. All told, the squadron teaches five weapon systems that perform tasks, such as defense of gateways and intrusion detection.

Who are these cyber trainees?

Incoming students to the 39th have already received their initial skills training in cyber, networking or IT from Keesler Air Force Base, located in Mississippi. However, the schoolhouse has a range of trainees, with some coming back multiple times if their role at work changes.

That was the case for Waters, the first commander of the 39th, who was also a product of the schoolhouse.

“It is very common for a student to come through the 39th multiple times,” she said. “Whether that’s just as a refresh or a mission change.”

Waters said she finds it amazing to see the diversity of personnel that are now “going to be pulled into and operate in cyber operations,” whether they’re a maintainer that cross-trained into cyber operations or a cyber support staffer.

One student — who, like all students and instructors interviewed by Fifth Domain, was granted anonymity given the sensitivity of operations — had a variety of work roles prior to coming to the schoolhouse. The student worked as an airfield systems maintenance technician, then a chaplain’s assistance assistant and is currently a cyber transport technician, which provided a bit of a networking background and helped at the schoolhouse.

Another student interviewed was previously an all-source intelligence analyst who received an IT degree after commissioning. The Air Force then sent the student to do cyber-related intelligence before being chosen for the cyber weapons instructor course at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. Now, having been assigned to a cyber protection team (CPT) — the cyber mission force’s defensive teams — he came to the schoolhouse for training in that area.

Cyber airmen go to the 39th Information Operations Squadron for courses tailored to the students’ experience and assigned mission. (Airman 1st Class D. Blake Browning/Air Force)
Cyber airmen go to the 39th Information Operations Squadron for courses tailored to the students’ experience and assigned mission. (Airman 1st Class D. Blake Browning/Air Force)

Given the diversity of trainees, the course pipeline is tailored to each individual, which leads to classes that have personnel from the earliest enlisted ranks to colonel.

“If I were to go to another cyber weapons system, I could come back through,” Waters said. “The pipeline is tailorable. I’ll come back in where I need to, whether it means I need a technical refresh or it’s that I need ‘here’s how this weapons system operates.’ ”

For example, this could mean switching from a CPT to be on a combat mission team — the offensive cyber mission force teams aligned to specific combatant commands.

The courses are focused on the unit an airman is headed to and their resident skill set (based on their experience). The goal is to accelerate the training and not put airmen through redundant courses they may not need.

Airmen can take lessons from the joint world and previous experience, but they will have to get the training at 39th IOS for the specific weapon system. However, individuals will get much more specific training once they go to their unit.

“We are by no means the last leg of their training. They’re going to get the core specific knowledge they need for their work role, as well as the mission they’re going to go do,” Waters said.

Integration with the operations community

To best support the operations communities that trainees will eventually funnel into, it’s imperative the schoolhouse is tied into their needs, leaders told Fifth Domain. This means a constant dialogue and integration with the operations community to ensure the schoolhouse meets their operational needs.

The schoolhouse helps the operations community build requirements that are driven by what the operational commanders need and then have folks from the weapon system as instructors, if possible.

“We build our curriculum based on fundamentals and tradecraft,” said one instructor, who prior to coming to the 39th IOS was a course teacher who performed offensive cyber operations.

“For me to come from an ops floor, where I’d been doing that in the real world, I can inject real-world stories, challenges, things that I have witnessed and challenges that may have been presented different avenues and the way that my team approached it. I can inject that real-world experience into training scenarios and give more context to it.”

If the operations community needs something different for training, they will tell schoolhouse leaders and the 39th IOS will try to update the courses on a six-month basis, if possible.

“We work hand-in-hand with the operations squadrons in order to build that curriculum, maintain, update it and present it to the students so they can be value-added day one when they get to their ops squadron,” Waters said. “We’re doing what we can with the limited number of people that we have in order to build the future of cyber ops.”