252nd becomes Cyber Operations Group

"The 252nd Group is...recognized as an intellectual leader in the cyber security field" Lt. Col. Robert Siau
252nd becomes Cyber Operations Group

By Hans Zeiger

Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III, director of the Air National Guard, makes a point during a visit to the 262nd Network Warfare Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord April 11, 2015. Maj. Gen. Bret D. Daugherty, adjutant general of the Washington National Guard, is seated next to Clarke. The 262nd is part of the 252nd Cyber Operations Group.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Paul Rider

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. - The 252nd Group is one of the first Air National Guard Groups in the nation to be designated as a Cyberspace Operations Group.

Formerly a combat communications group, the 252nd works to “provide highly trained cyberspace and intelligence professionals to combatant commanders across the spectrum of warfare,” said Col. Charles Jeffries, commander of the 252nd. The Group’s five squadrons have come to specialize in targeting, cyber intelligence, and cyberspace mission assurance, as well as combat communications.

The Group’s squadrons have earned attention and accolades from national defense leaders in recent years, said Jeffries. In April, Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke III, national director of the Air National Guard, visited Camp Murray and Joint Base Lewis-McChord to learn about the 252nd and its cyber operations capabilities. In November, Maj. Gen. Burke E. Wilson, commander of the 24th Air Force and Air Force Cyber, spent time with cyber experts at the 262nd Network Warfare Squadron. 

Other top Air Force general officers and Department of Defense officials, as well as members of Congress, have also visited.

Participants in the U.S. Air Force Weapons School’s Cyber Warfare Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) have visited the Group to learn about best practices in cyber operations. Multiple WIC graduates work in the 252nd, said Lt. Col. Peter Chiou, commander of the 143rd Cyber Operations Squadron. 

“A lot of folks are interested in how we are doing domestic operations,” said Lt. Col. Robert Siau, commander of the 262nd Network Warfare Squadron. “Washington has been leading the way in cyber operations.”

Local, state, and federal government agencies have sought out vulnerability assessments from the Washington Air Guard. When one federal agency called for help, “we were quickly able to add value,” said Chiou. With help from the 143rd, the Army Guard, and the Washington State Guard, the 262nd took the lead on a recent vulnerability assessment for a local agency, helping the organization to improve system security. 

The 252nd Group has sent teams to Cyber Guard competitions in recent years. In 2014, teams from the Group placed first and second of 19 teams, said Siau.

The 252nd Group is also recognized as an intellectual leader in the cyber security field, having helped to shape protocols, vocabulary, and best practices through white papers and other publications. “A lot of times we’re building the templates and standards for others to follow,” said Siau. 

“Our cyberspace operations squadrons are leading the way for the Air National Guard for the new Cyber Protection Team (CPT) mission,” said Jeffries. “The 143rd and 262nd are actively preparing for the first CPT mobilizations for the Air National Guard, along with the 261st from the California Air National Guard.”

In June, the 143rd practiced its CPT capabilities during Exercise Evergreen Tremor, a statewide exercise to prepare for a catastrophic Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. 

“Our state is particularly well-situated,” said Lt. Col. Mark Aown, director of operations for the 143rd. “We have a good pool to draw from.”

The Guard also recruits Airmen without high-tech credentials. “The untold story is the Airman who comes into the unit without a cyber background,” said Siau. “They come back here from training and they come through more training. These guys get on a couple of missions, and then they go on to get high-dollar jobs because of their Guard experience and the connections they make. They’ll get an entry level job, get experience there, and they’ll do better here because of it.”

“We have not only the talent but also the leadership in this state,” said Aown. “We’re kind of unique.”

“We have the best of the best in the world,” said Chiou. “We’re blessed by our geography. We have the high tech sector and military bases.” 

Maj. Gen. Frank Scoggins, former assistant adjutant general for Air of the Washington Air National Guard, established the nation’s first demonstration team for cyber operations in 1998. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 262nd Combat Communications Squadron based in Bellingham was converted to the 262nd Network Warfare Squadron. 

Later, in 2011, members of the 262nd worked to launch a second cyber operations unit by converting the 143rd from a combat communications squadron to the 143rd Cyber Operations Squadron, said Siau. 

Both the 262nd and the 143rd have cyber protection teams, and the 262nd has an additional tasking to conduct an Air Force pilot project for protection of industrial control systems, said Siau. “We really see ourselves as one large squadron divided into teams,” said Chiou. Other units of the 252nd include the 194th and 256th Intelligence Squadrons, and the 242nd Combat Communications Squadron, which extends and enables communications networks for state and federal missions. 

The inaugural cyber operations mission of the 143rd in November 2012 was directed by Gov. Christine Gregoire and involved a number of leading technology companies. State CIO Bharat Shyam wanted to know more about the capabilities of cyber operators, said Rios. Over two weeks, the public-private team located vulnerabilities in state IT infrastructure, providing information to agencies to help them bolster their security infrastructure.  

“We are constantly changing and evolving mission sets,” said Siau. “We are helping the nation to figure out these different sets of missions. I always tell my guys, ‘Embrace the constant evolution.’”