Hal Steinman, from the 38th CEG, sits on board a U.S. Army UH-60 helicopter during an Air Force communications assessment inspection to identify shorfalls and vulnerabilities for AFCENT in 2005. (Courtesy photo)
Surrounded by the hum of computer servers, Bill Rankin does some preventive maintenance in the server room at the 38th Cyberspace Engineering Group. The functional systems administrator and information assurance officer helps keep all levels of information flowing as the group keeps communication going world-wide. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)
10/2/2009 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "It's just a typical Tuesday," says Col. Chris Cotts, commander of the 38th Cyber Engineering Group, as he samples a selection of desserts made by members of the unit.
A dessert-tasting contest is not a typical exercise for an active Air Force unit. But then, the 38th is not a typical unit.
The 38th CEG is tasked with the planning and installation of communications and electronic equipment at each and every US Air Force base in the world. Whether the equipment is telephone, radio or computer-based, the 38th delivers it. It is the only unit of its kind in the Air Force.
"We're a small organization but a pretty diverse group," says Toni Tirone, division chief of programs control.
The 38th was born in the late 1940s as one of a number of similar units before becoming part of the Ground Electronics Engineering Installation Agency in 1958. The agency was responsible for engineering planning and installation of electronics and communications equipment. Following reorganization in the 1970s, the Air Force established a single Engineering Installation Center at Tinker in 1981. The center took on acquisition and contracting duties following the end of the Cold War and in 2000, the 38th Engineering Installation Group assumed the duties of the center.
And in August, the Air Force once again reorganized with the Combat Communications groups and the 38th reporting to a new Wing - the 688th Information Operations Wing - and a new numbered Air Force - the 24th - and Air Force Space Command. The 38th also changed names, exchanging the Engineering Installation Group for the Cyberspace Engineering Group. The name change comes partly in recognition of the growing emphasis on computer-based communications equipment and partly because of the Air Force's growing emphasis on the latest battlefield - cyberspace.
"Some people think of cyberspace as just information," Colonel Cotts says. "That's not the way DOD sees cyberspace. The Department of Defense defines cyberspace as a physical thing." For the Air Force, cyberspace is a physical reality of networks, switches and servers. It is as real as the cable connecting a computer to a network, says Colonel Cotts.
"It is the most physically manifest part of the cyberspace foundation," he explains. "Without it, you don't get very far. You need that connection and we are here to make sure that connection exists."
The reorganization opens up new opportunities for mission effectiveness.
"The old construct had responsibility for different facets of our cyber capabilities diffused throughout the Air Force," Colonel Cotts says. "The new construct brings it all together under a single commander to enable us to fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace."
A key challenge will be "integrating our deliberate efforts with the rapid and real-time weaponeering efforts going on within the Air Force's new cyber construct," he adds. "We'll be able to do much - though not all - of that within the 688th. This also supercharges our effort to leverage the Total Force. So much of our cyberspace installation capability resides in the Air National Guard. We can't afford not to take full advantage of that."
In an age of outsourcing expertise, the 38th holds its own.
"One of the unique things about us is the number of degreed engineers and specialists," says Colonel Cotts. "You just don't find that concentration in the government anymore."
But of the 300 or more members in the unit, only nine are uniformed Airmen. The rest are civilians. That doesn't stop them from being in the thick of the action around the globe, however.
"We have no civilian billets marked as mandatory deployment," Colonel Cotts says. "None. But we have 24 civilians that deploy. They have been to the most deployable of locations. From the Balkans to Djibouti. That's the neat thing about the people here." People like Hal Steinman, an electronics engineer.
"He's an icon," says Jerry Eyerman, deputy director of the 38th, himself a long-time member of the unit.
"I've done 18 deployments," Mr. Steinman says. "I've got two years and three months of boots-on-the-ground time."
A military veteran, Mr. Steinman spends an average of 120 to 130 days a year deployed to forward operating bases, turning makeshift communications equipment into more permanent facilities. His latest work included establishing secure communications for a remote base in southwest Asia, "going from dirt to a fixed-plan infrastructure." During the work, he also developed methodology that can be used at other bases.
Being deployed and working in austere conditions can sometimes be frustrating, he said. But it is worthwhile when strangers thank him for his work.
"One guy stopped me and said, 'What do you do,'" Mr. Steinman recalls. "I told him and he said, 'So you're the guy I need to thank. My Airmen can call home now.'"
Mr. Steinman says he will continue to volunteer to deploy as long as he is needed. It is, he says, his duty.
"We don't make foreign policy, but those in uniform enforce it," he says. "If I can help them accomplish their mission, then that's what I need to do."
A large part of the work Mr. Steinman and others do is turn temporary, expeditionary communications facilities into more permanent and robust infrastructure. Combat communications units like the 3rd Herd, of which Colonel Cotts is a former commander, are often the first on the scene and hit the ground running.
"But their equipment is designed to be used for a certain amount of time," says Mr. Eyerman. "That's where we come in."
Upgrading a temporary base to a more permanent installation requires planning and installation of more robust but operationally flexible equipment in what are often harsh environments. "It's a very interesting challenge," Mr. Eyerman says.
Their work, he explains, often overlaps with their Combat Communications counterparts. Those overlapping duties are one of the reasons why the Air Force is placing the Combat Communications units alongside the 38th under Air Force Space Command.
"We have some opportunities to interact with our brothers in Combat Comm," Colonel Cotts says.
The recent reorganization under Space Command also brought the 85th Engineering Installation Squadron under the command of the 38th. It, too, is a unique unit.
"We are the only active-duty engineering installation squadron in the Air Force," says squadron commander Lt. Col. Lonnie Hammack.
Although based at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., members of the unit regularly deploy as far afield as Greenland to check on ground-based aircraft navigation beacons or to Cape Canaveral to evaluate potential radio interference with Shuttle or rocket launches.
"On average we have about 40 percent of the squadron deployed or TDY at any one time," Colonel Hammack says. "They are spread out."
The rest are on 72-hour standby to deploy with equipment when and where necessary. One of the lesser-known elements of the 38th is the Cyberspace Infrastructure Planning System, a computerized database containing the communications infrastructure layout of each and every building at each and every Air Force installation in the world.
Located in a climate-controlled room at the 38ths facilities on "The Hill" overlooking Tinker, the computer servers contain information detailed down to the last communications outlet. More than a decade old, CIPS allows planners to easily access this data - in many cases with GPS accuracy - to design, engineer and plan communications capability for Air Force mission requirements worldwide.
"Every building in the Air Force is in an Oracle database," explains Bill Rankin, information assurance officer.
That database also allows the 38th to plan, upgrade or reconfigure communications systems for any Air Force facility.
Engineers often help designers put communications equipment in the right place to begin with by reviewing building blueprints at "Phase Zero."
"The biggest thing people tend to forget when they build a building is communications," says Capt. Joseph Murphy, communications planner.
Mr. Rankin and his colleagues also test new computer software applications before they are implemented. He's tested everything from Windows 95 to the latest Windows Vista program. The equipment, too, reflects continual changes in the cyber world, with servers the size of refrigerators being replaced by those "a little larger than a pizza box." And in a pinch, Mr. Rankin says, they can even assist the computer help desk.
"We have a tremendously diverse bunch of folks who work here," Colonel Cotts says.
"Tremendous expert capability."
And, on the occasional Tuesday, they even serve dessert.