Communications Squadron Airmen Keep ADAB Network Secure

  • Published
  • By MSgt Dan Heaton

While most of their work is seldom seen, two Al Dhafra Air Base Airmen are part of the front-line of cyber security for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Staff Sgts. Adam Phelps and Chandler Didricksen are cyber security operations specialists with the 380th Expeditionary Communications Squadron. Working in two separate offices, they, along with a handful of colleagues, provide the critical infrastructure support necessary to allow classified and secure communications to take place on the Wing.

While both Airmen hold the same Air Force Specialty Code, they work in different offices, addressing tangentially-related cyber security disciplines.

Didricksen works in the Wing’s Communications Security, or COMSEC, office. There, the Missouri native and others ensure the correct use of cryptographic keys, which allows two-way secure communication via radios and computer networks. The cryptographic keys are used by all the flying squadrons, as well as the local Army units, enabling them to communicate and complete their dynamic missions.

Phelps, a member of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling Wing, works in the 380th’s Wing Cybersecurity office (WCO). Among other tasks, that office works on the technical and physical security of the base’s computer networks, ensuring no unauthorized devices are plugged in, software updates are maintained and performing frequent scans of the network, looking for any possible vulnerabilities that can affect every network user on ADAB. This job, being the first line of defense for the Air Force’s $14 billion network, is a critical role that only the WCO is charged with on ADAB.

“We are part of the defensive team,” Phelps explained. “We are looking for any potential weakness and ensuring we have a robust system.”

The two Airmen said while much of their work can be routine, there can be moments of urgency, to ensure communications are maintained at all times. Their humble professionalism downplays the significance of their roles, as indicated by their squadron commander, Major Neil Wood.

“Our Wing Cybersecurity and COMSEC team is positively affecting the mission every day at ADAB," Wood said. "The work that Staff Sgts. Phelps and Didricksen do each day impacts the entire Wing. Cybersecurity protects literally every single user on our network and defends against threats that change daily. Without COMSEC, our aircrews wouldn’t be able to communicate securely and execute the ATO. It’s amazing to think how big of an impact that these two Airmen have on such a large number of people every day. Their diligence allows every Airman, Soldier, civilian, and coalition partner in the 380th AEW to their missions safely and securely.”

Didricksen said the COMSEC work is structured, as he and his office works within a strict set of guidelines. These strict guidelines exist for a reason, as one mistake could prevent an aircraft or an Army unit from communicating securely, potentially affecting mission execution. On the other hand, he says, the Wing Cybersecurity office faces more dynamic challenges, as new software and new systems are always coming online and creating new threat vectors.

“COMSEC is very black and white,” Didricksen said. “On the Cyber Security side, dealing with emerging technologies, there’s much more nuance.”

To counter the evolving threat, the Airmen rely on both formal and informal training.

“We have continual training,” Phelps said. “We have a number of schools and classes beyond our tech school and then there’s always what you are learning on the job.

“The network is so much more complex here in a deployed environment, compared to home station, I’ve really been able to expand my own knowledge base and then turn right around and apply that to the daily job,” Phelps said.

Didricksen said every base in the Air Force has different cyber threat to consider.

“Our job is to counter those threats and ensure that the information needed to support the mission is delivered and is secure in its delivery,” he said.

Didricksen is an active-duty Airman, forward deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. Phelps is a full-time technician employee with the Pennsylvania ANG, based at Pittsburgh International Airport.