346th Test Squadron practices the 'art' of cyber testing

Senior Airman Steven Craig and Staff Sgt. Bruce Woo, 346th Test Squadron, verify network security settings for an Air Force-level test here Oct. 4. The unit tests hardware and software for units within 24th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, the Air Force and the Defense Information Systems Agency. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Barker)

Senior Airman Steven Craig and Staff Sgt. Bruce Woo, 346th Test Squadron, verify network security settings for an Air Force-level test here Oct. 4. The squadron tests hardware and software for units within 24th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, the Air Force and the Defense Information Systems Agency. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Barker)

Second Lt. Steven Arthur and Tech. Sgt. Jose Nazario, 346th Test Squadron, program a telephony switch for the operational test network here Oct. 4. The squadron is responsible for testing all hardware and software before it can be used by cyber operators. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Barker)

Second Lt. Steven Arthur and Tech. Sgt. Jose Nazario, 346th Test Squadron, program a telephony switch for the operational test network here Oct. 4. The squadron is responsible for testing all hardware and software before it can be used by cyber operators. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Barker)

Staff Sgt. Phillip Graves, 346th Test Squadron, calibrates equipment for radio frequency emission testing here Oct. 4. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Barker)

Staff Sgt. Phillip Graves, 346th Test Squadron, calibrates equipment for radio frequency emission testing here Oct. 4. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Barker)

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Just as consumer products are tested before they are sold commercially, software and hardware used by cyber operators are dissected, analyzed and tested to determine how they work before being deployed within the vast Air Force network.

The strengths, limitations and vulnerabilities of such cyber systems are tested by the 346th Test Squadron here daily.

The team of testers gives a detailed report with recommendations to Air Force Space Command and 24th Air Force to determine if the tested equipment or capability may be deployed for operational use.

"Without the 346th, systems would not be fully tested to ensure their capabilities meet the warfighters need," said Capt. Oliver Sagun, 346th TS Range Flight commander. "If no testing is conducted, these systems might fail or open security holes in the network making the Air Force network vulnerable to potential cyber threats. The squadron is the first line of defense ensuring new systems and capabilities meet Air Force requirements for both the network and warfighter. Being able to be the first to test new software and hardware before it's given to the warfighter makes me proud because we're enhancing it and ensuring the warfighter gets a fully functional system to accomplish their mission."

Lt. Col. Heather Anderson, who took command of the unit June 30, said the testers in the 346th TS give their all to each project."They work very hard to get tested and proven capabilities to the warfighter," she said. "Their attention to detail to make sure they get through everything is incredible, from understanding the requirements, all the way to the operational employment of the system capability that they're going to test. And they help thread that needle for all the customers to make sure that they have all the information about the new capability."

Anderson said it takes a lot of training and hands-on work to become a tester and the nature of the job requires testers to think outside the box on every project they take on.

"A lot of it is art," said the commander. "There's a lot of complicating factors. We have to determine what kind of questions we need to answer at a hierarchy level, and then that helps us to define our metrics to get to that end state."

Anderson credits the teamwork of her unit members for the unit's success. She said the teamwork on and off duty is incredible.

"From physical training to testing a capability, they work really hard as a team and work really hard together," said Anderson. "Herding fish is what we do as testers. You bring disparate communities together - from program offices to requirements generators to the major command to operators and developers - and you bring all of those people together to make them think. Not think the same, but see what the same end state is so that you're all marching down the same path."

Marching together isn't new to military members, and Senior Airman James Baker, a 346th TS Range Flight technician, said the camaraderie is the best thing about going to work every day in the test squadron.

Anderson points to the total force of active-duty Airmen, Air Guardsmen from the 273rd Information Operations Squadron, civilians and contractors, when she speaks to the team concept at the 346th TS. She said traditional Guardsmen offer both continuity and cutting edge to her unit by helping the Air Force stay ahead of the latest testing techniques and equipment.

"Some of my guys who are civilians or contractors are also Guardsmen," she explained. "So, they turn around on the weekend and work for us and it's great. Others are traditional guardsmen who don't work here so, they bring in the industry-standard and latest technology because they're out there doing it day to day. So, they bring that back and they say, 'Hey, this is coming down. Have you thought about this?' So, we get refreshed on what's state-of-the-art, if you will."

Anderson said cyber operators who come to the 346th TS and become testers bring experience from the operations floor. She said that experience allows the unit perspective which gives current cyber operators the best product possible.

"To me, the test environment is very exciting," she said. "This is where operators can make an impact to what they will be using in the future. Because if we test it well, the operator is going to know exactly how that system's going to perform, the risks associated with it, its deficiencies and whether they want to continue to use it."

Anderson said the unit's biggest challenge is meeting the "speed of need" while keeping testing thoroughness at the forefront. She said her team impresses her daily by finding innovative ways to narrow the gap between speed and thoroughness.

"I couldn't do it without them," said the commander. "They're incredible. They're absolutely amazing. Their knowledge, their stamina to keep pushing through difficult situations and overcome challenging topics ... is absolutely amazing."