AFIT ACE program has gamer appeal

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- A terrorist plot to cripple the Air Force Institute of Technology has been uncovered. The diabolical scheme calls for an enemy agent to access and hijack one of five space stations orbiting Earth and use it to breach AFIT security systems. The government is offering a huge reward to find the rogue operative. You are a technically talented bounty hunter with a spaceship.  Your plan… infiltrate the network of each space station to collect evidence to identify and convict the scoundrel. Urgency is paramount. You are not the only bounty hunter pursuing this reward.


Sound exciting? This scenario is the basis for a newly created 3D Virtual World lab experience. This hands-on lab is designed to educate Air Force Academy and ROTC cadets on Cyber Operations and Network Security as part of the Advanced Cyber Education (ACE) program conducted by the Center for Cyberspace Research at AFIT. 


“Fifteen years ago if you were talking about cyber security most people were thinking about their credit cards being compromised. While that is still a concern, the Air Force focus is on its mission; to fly, fight and win” said Dr. Robert Mills, Director of AFIT’s Center for Cyberspace Research, “To carry on our operations, wherever required, in support of national objectives. We can’t do that without the ability to access and use cyberspace, while ensuring our information has not been compromised.”  


The ACE lab spans the gamut of cyber operations -- from physical hardware, to state-of-the-art network tools, to distributed 3D Virtual Worlds. Teams must employ computer networking tactics at all these levels to solve a mystery cyber scenario. The futuristic environment places AFIT's campus in Earth's orbit as a set of space stations. Student teams use their virtual spacecraft to jet around the galaxy from space station to space station, all the while conducting cyber surveillance to collect clues, capture network traffic, inject network messages, and attempt to take remote control of opposing teams' space craft.


“One of the novel things about this program is we have incorporated a 3-D virtual world that looks just like a computer game, something with which many of our students are acquainted. Like other games it is networked across many machines and players. While playing the game our students are simultaneously using network tools to decipher and understand what is going on in the virtual world while also attempting to manipulate other team’s information to gain a competitive advantage” said Dr. Scott Nykl, Assistant Professor at AFIT. “The concepts learned here can be used every day for cyber offense and cyber defense. Be it defending a small private network, a huge corporation, or while deployed, these types of concepts apply wherever our cadets may go. The problem solving skills and troubleshooting techniques employed in this environment train our cadets to think like a cyber warrior.”


AFIT’s ACE program is a four-week course that takes place during the undergraduate academic summer break.  The program consists of an instructional component, cyber war exercises, and cyber officer development days that focus on the study of cyberspace operations and their unique leadership challenges. The objective of the ACE program is to develop the cadets as the next generation of cyber-security leaders through an intense program that immerses students in the cyber-security discipline while educating them on becoming future military leaders. This program covers a wide variety of cyber-security related disciplines to develop original thinkers and technical leaders who can solve real-world problems in the area of cyber-security. 


“Along with using everyday deductive reasoning to solve hidden puzzles, the program also emphasizes the various layers of cyberspace, from hardware to operating systems, all the way up to the application layer” said Nykl, “This 3D virtual world has logical processes that run inside of it and challenge students to reverse engineer them. But in the process of doing that, they are also facing attacks and contention from opposing team’s intent on disabling them. The program brings hand-on practical experience into the inner workings of how both cyber offense and defense take shape.”


The AFIT Center for Cyberspace Research, conducts defense-focused cybersecurity research at the Master's and PhD levels. AFIT is a national Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research, as designated by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency. AFIT is also an NSA-designated Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations.