Cyber Airmen Trained for a China-Taiwan Conflict That Unfolds Online

If China invaded Taiwan, how would it play out on the Internet and mobile devices? How could the U.S. Air Force use that public information to the military’s benefit? It’s a 21st-century dilemma the service is beginning to understand.

Over the course of four weeks in late August and early September, Airmen in the 16th Air Force information warfare organization explored how to mine social media and other forms of public information to address an undisclosed scenario involving China and Taiwan.

They used a toolkit built by Virginia-based BlackHorse Solutions that was paid for by the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability team, a group based at the Pentagon that studies how the service should be structured and what tools it needs to fight in the future.

“It trained those Airmen how to use those tools first, and … gave them two scenarios,” 67th Cyberspace Operations Group Commander Col. Lauren Courchaine told Air Force Magazine on Sept. 17. “They were required to only use those open-source tools and any other open-source research that they wanted to do to create … an analysis of the environment to try and determine where the linchpins are that they could potentially further examine.”

What made the training different from current operations is that it got students to think holistically about what that information might mean for all parts of the the Joint Force. In four hours, students used the open-source data to determine what next steps the U.S. could take not only in cyberspace, but across air, land, sea, and space as well. Their solutions would “‘swarm’ the adversary with numerous decision-making dilemmas, which in turn highlights adversaries’ vulnerabilities and friendly opportunities,” Courchaine said in a Sept. 23 email.

According to BlackHorse’s website, the company offers training to understand and exploit publicly available information (PAI), as well as courses in research methodology, data protection, shielding against cybercriminals while traveling, and trawling the dark web—the encrypted, anonymous part of the Internet that does not appear in regular search engines and is often used for illegal activity.

The Air Force has discussed PAI as an untapped intelligence resource for years, and information warfare for decades. But its training and tactics for actually using sources like social media still lag behind.

“This is the first time that I’ve seen the practical application of data, tools, and thought from Airmen,” Courchaine said. “When you marry those together, we were able to come up with an operational concept that I can now take, I can align that with a team of cyber fires planners, and additional intelligence analysts, and I can now bump that … information picture up against true intelligence to ensure that what I’m looking at is accurate and succinct. Then I can drive operations from that picture.”

Gathering intel from the public domain can show the Air Force where to focus more specialized reconnaissance technology, like the sensors used to covertly gather electronic signals or images collected by aircraft and satellites, former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Cyber Effects Operations Lt. Gen. VeraLinn Jamieson said in her 2018 Next-Generation ISR Dominance Flight Plan.

That requires the algorithms and expertise to sift through an endless stream of posts, public documents, and more to figure out what’s important and what’s noise. Moving away from a reliance on traditional ISR assets also gives the military more options in a war where those planes might be shot down, or satellites could be jammed.

If the military knows how to pick out patterns in an enemy’s daily life, see their likes and dislikes, and track who they know in new ways, the Air Force can try to shape or interfere with their behavior. The service could pick up on trends that might affect a partner country overseas, or that indicate the U.S. needs to move some of its people or combat assets.

“Adversaries were tracking us through the Strava app or through [Untappd], and so they were tracking military members and their pattern of life through things that they were doing on the personal side of their lives,” Courchaine said, referring to workout- and beer-logging software. “We must be able to do the same thing, to be able to find the weakest link in an adversary’s [decision-making] loop and be able to exploit that.”

It’s easier said than done: Airmen aren’t used to thinking about how the information they see in the digital realm could translate into real-world, multidomain actions. Courchaine indicated that over time, Airmen can learn to be more proactive with cyber operations, keeping one step ahead of those they are watching, instead of being reactive.

The military can do more to software the Air Force already owns to dig through public data. BlackHorse could teach USAF how to make the most of its current technology as the service evolves its training and lobbies for the right tools, though it’s unclear if 16th Air Force will continue using the toolkit from this particular exercise.

“If we can smartly and decisively look at the status quo, and fully understand where we need to go, we can alter training in a way that does things like include [PAI] into our intelligence apparatus so that we can look at a full picture,” Courchaine said.