352nd Network Warfare Squadron wins Air Force-level OPSEC accolades

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- In the military, operational security is an important part of the mission.

For the 352nd Network Warfare Squadron, OPSEC is the mission. The unit was recently named the Air Force OPSEC Organizational Excellence winner.

In 2010, the unit's cyber analysts identified 175 OPSEC violations while monitoring more than 4.1 million e-mails and 327 thousand phone calls. Being named the organizational excellence winners seems fitting when considering 23 Airmen make up the 352nd NWS, yet they are responsible for improving the OPSEC posture of combat-ready forces throughout the Pacific Air Forces area of responsibility, as well as service members in U.S. Pacific Command, and U.S. Central Command.

"I am very proud of the Airmen in the 352nd Network Warfare Squadron," said Lt. Col. Kurt Saffer, 352nd NWS commander. "Though we are half a world away from Iraq and Afghanistan, the intelligence and force protection assessments our analysts do every day ensures Air Force operators are safe from enemy actions and U.S. objectives are achieved."

Colonel Saffer said the unit not only helps others avoid OPSEC slip ups, but also works hard to lead by example as all unit members have access to secure networks and telephones. The 352nd has a 100 percent shred policy for paper and the unit's OPSEC program manager provides monthly awareness briefings.

"Our squadron has access to a great deal of sensitive information about the combat operations of the two combatant commands we monitor, so it is imperative our unit has nothing short of top-notch OPSEC [tactics, techniques and procedures]," Colonel Saffer explained.

Col. Kevin Wooton, 67th Network Warfare Wing, said the award is well deserved.

"The 352nd is impressive," he said. "These cyber warriors do so many great things every day. They have global influence and take the Air Force out of harm's way over and over. You can't put a price on a team that identifies vulnerabilities and makes fixes in real time as the problems happen. Think if you could do that with your car as you're driving along the highway. They're invaluable."

Colonel Saffer said instilling a culture of OPSEC into a unit takes commitment and awareness at every level.

"People need to remain vigilant as we are still at war, with our adversaries constantly trying to exploit our communications systems, and the best thing we can do to thwart their efforts is to vigilantly protect our sensitive information," he said. "All units should have a critical information list which spells out exactly what should not be discussed on non-secure phones, as well as in unclassified e-mails."

Staff Sgt. Nelson Gutierrez, a 352nd NWS cyber operations controller, said the squadron is responsible for monitoring unclassified communications on the Air Force Network as governed in the AFI 32-19 Telecommunications Monitoring and Assessment Program.

"Essentially, we listen to phone calls and monitor e-mails that come through official Department of Defense lines to ensure critical and classified information is not accidentally leaked," he said. "We conduct missions throughout the PACAF, USPACOM, and USCENTCOM AORs."

Sergeant Gutierrez said the mission can be thankless, as a common misconception is he and his co-workers are out looking for ways to get people in trouble. He said that's just not the case and he hopes folks in the Air Force would try to be more aware of the things they're saying or sending on the unclassified network.

"We're here for education and training purposes," he said. "We are here to protect information and sometimes protect people from unintentional mission related disclosures. By doing this, we may actually be able to protect the lives of combat troops."

Colonel Saffer said Air Force leaders need to make sure their personnel are thoroughly familiar with their unit's critical information list. He said leaders can improve their unit's OPSEC practices by using commander's calls and other unit assemblies as an opportunity to discuss OPSEC. The commander said simply encrypting your e-mail is a free, easy way to add a layer of protection to operational information.

"Most people would choose to practice good OPSEC, therefore leaders at all levels of command must educate their Airmen," he said. "As the Air Force becomes increasingly reliant on cyber communication systems, we as a service need to be increasingly vigilant in our OPSEC practices, processes and procedures. While the term OPSEC may be relatively new, protecting sensitive operational information has been a military imperative since the dawn of warfare and can only be achieved by constant diligence."

Diligence in performing the mission was but one reason the 352nd gained accolades for its efforts, according to Colonel Saffer.

"This award is recognition of the hard work and dedication to duty of the men and women of the 352nd NWS, but is a great compliment to all the silent OPSEC warriors across the globe who are holding the line and protecting our cyber warriors," said Colonel Saffer. "Our efforts over the last year have supported our joint and coalition front-line teammates and assisted the Air Force in executing national-level objectives. We look forward to making great strides in OPSEC analysis again in 2011."