Air Force cyber unit moves software development team to downtown

SAN ANTONIO — The US Air Force has moved its sole software development squadron to the Light Building in downtown San Antonio, with plans to support the armed forces 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 they call Shadow’s Edge to quickly create unclassified cyber tools. The Air Force unit will continue to work on covert operations for the US Cyber ​​Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

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

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

“The talent piece is probably the biggest driver for us to move downtown,” Miller said. “What I envision for the potential for a partnership is going to be totally blown out of the water once we actually have the unit down here and start interacting with people.”

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

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

The 318th COG reports to the 67th Cyberspace Wing, which is billed as the “Air Force execution arm for conducting global cyberspace operations.” 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

In the past, the Department of Defense had a reputation for being slow to adopt new technology. But in recent years the military has deployed workers to off-base offices in Texas to attract highly skilled workers and learn how to produce as quickly and skillfully as good startups.

The US Army selected Austin in 2018 for its Futures Command, whose mission is to bring cutting-edge technologies to warfare.

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In 2019, the Air Force established a software development organization called LevelUP Code Works in San Antonio. Its staff — a mix of military personnel, civilians, and contractors — work in an office on Navarro Street for the Air Force and other Department of Defense missions.

Lt. Col. Richard Lopez, who led the organization at the time, said LevelUP was established downtown because of its proximity to the River Walk and the city’s small but vibrant 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 established 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.

The development of software factories “is a complete indicator that the Air Force is starting to take software development much more seriously,” Miller said. “But the 90th has remained largely unknown due to the specifics of the mission we are carrying out.”

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

The unit has built a team of developers “working on schedules that are often measured in weeks to months, sometimes days to hours,” Miller said. “So we don’t have years and decades, as we are used to from large government contracts.”

90th in private markets

In an attempt to work with technology companies, the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron licensed Whiddler, software that can identify malicious files or malware used to harm computers, networks or servers to steal data, hijack computer functions and monitor activities.

While other software scans a network file and determines whether it is malicious, the device’s technology can specifically look for suspicious elements.

In 2020 and 2021, the 67th Cyberspace Wing signed patent license 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.

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Ohio-based Ignyte Assurance 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 for organizations looking to innovate away from slower and more cumbersome processes,” said Max Aulakh, founder and CEO of Ignyte, last year.

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

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

Move downtown

Operating largely on classified information, the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron is struggling to attract talent, particularly from civilians.

“One of the things we notice in recruiting is that people didn’t realize that this type of work is something you can do and then get paid for it and also not get arrested,” Lively said.

The unit has been exploring additional avenues to talk about its unclassified activities, meet with private sector stakeholders and tap into San Antonio’s growing pool of tech workers. And unit heads believe the recent move downtown could be part of the solution.

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Mixing with the private sector meant changing long-held notions about keeping all cyber missions on the ground.

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

“COVID was one of the many things that ultimately opened the eyes of people within the squadron – but also of our leadership – to realize that such a move is even possible,” Miller said. “Before COVID, everything we did was done in a secret facility and just discussing something like that made people uneasy.”

Unit heads questioned what should remain secret as the military continues to conduct cyber warfare operations. They decided that while they wanted to keep much of the information out of the public eye, they could release other projects, especially if they use open-source cybersecurity tools already in use in academia and the private sector.

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“We’ve realized there’s a whole lot of things we can do without secrecy. And when we’re willing to move in that direction, it opens up the fact that we’re living with a whole lot of people that we didn’t have before and gives us the opportunity to move unity downtown to have them in close proximity to other government agencies and civilian facilities,” Miller said.

Looking for a centrally located space in San Antonio, the unit ended up in the newly renovated Light Building on Broadway, where Express-News is also a tenant. It started in July with moving office furniture and computers into the premises.

“We were excited about the opportunity to build the space we want instead of moving to another building downtown that has already decided where the walls are going,” Lively said. “We were looking for a way to adapt the building to our needs.”

The unit leaders said the Light Building was safe enough to conduct their unclassified operations.

“Our people have been at home during COVID and have been doing this,” 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 and plans to hire an additional 21 positions this year to work on-base, remotely or in the Shadow’s Edge office. Miller also envisions having interns from the University of Texas at San Antonio work in the Light Building.

He hopes the downtown acreage will be an incentive, as developers have been looking for downtown apartments rather than those closer to the military base.

One predictable recruiting challenge is attracting the type of tech workers that are among the highest-earning in the city, with a median annual wage of $88,017 in 2020, compared to $55,940 among workers in all other industries across the city, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission.

According to Lively, the unit has hired developers who have expressed interest in working on the Air Force’s cyber missions, which could have a global reach.

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

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