Cyber goes to war
By Lt. Col. James R. Burleigh, 24th Air Force
/ Published December 07, 2012
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
Editor's note: Lt. Col. James Burleigh returned from a deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan, and was presented with the Bronze Star Medal in a ceremony at 24th Air Force headquarters in September, and returned to duty in November as the operations directorate chief of current operations. This commentary is his account of his experiences while deployed to Afghanistan, where he also was awarded the U.S. Army Combat Action Badge for engagement with the enemy.
Returning from my six-month deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan, seemed to take forever. Working 12-18 hour days, seven days-a-week makes the time go by quickly, but not quick enough when I had family waiting for me to return home. Add to that the almost four months of pre-deployment training, and it seemed like forever since I left San Antonio for Afghanistan in March 2012. This was my third deployment, having been deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Bosnia in 2002, and by far the most rewarding one. Rewarding from the standpoint of job satisfaction - contributing to the mission, directly supporting the warfighter, and disrupting insurgent lines of communication while protecting American and coalition lives. This was where I needed to be.
My deployment was to the International Security Assistance Force - Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was the Expeditionary Cyber Support Element - Afghanistan deputy officer-in-charge and computer network operations planner. I was part of a U.S. Cyber Command nine-person team of joint cyber planners that executed numerous classified cyber operations in support of U.S. and coalition forces. As the lead CNO planner, I served as the mission commander for cyber operations and was responsible for the direction and execution of operations that targeted anti-Afghanistan forces while protecting U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces and the lives of the Afghan population.
Our team was small and spread out over the country. We were joint service with allied support. Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, civilians ... we were as "joint" as you can get. However, our cyber effects reached across Afghanistan and our capabilities were continually requested. I was the first cyber planner embedded with the Military Information Support Task Force - Afghanistan as the cyber subject matter expert; and integrated cyber capabilities during a coordinated information operations campaign. I executed nine cyber operations during the campaign that was designed to counter the Taliban's propaganda.
The part of the deployment that I'm most proud of is supporting the special operations forces. While serving as the lead IJC cyber planner, I supported numerous on-call SOF missions that required quick planning and coordination of cyber effects in response to high value target kill/capture/rescue missions. I developed cyber focused target sets that provided the ability to disrupt the adversary's ability to command and control their forces. Working with our coalition partners, my team developed and implemented new procedures which increased the ability to execute cyber operations against insurgents by 60 percent. This dramatic increase in cyber capability allowed United States Forces - Afghanistan to target selective insurgents, disrupting their operations against U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces.
I was the cyber "trigger puller" of the team. It was my job to submit, coordinate and manage all USFOR-A cyber requests with the U.S. Cyber Command Joint Operations Center. I had situational awareness of every cyber operation taking place in theater. I deconflicted/prioritized cyber requests within theater. A big part of the job was briefing senior leadership on the cyber capabilities my team brought to the fight, and how to incorporate those cyber effects with both kinetic and non-kinetic operational planning and execution.
The worst part of the deployment was the continual danger. Bad food, austere living conditions, long hours, and missing family and loved ones are bad enough; but being under attack is the worst. On May 2, while attending a planning meeting at Camp Green, we came under direct insurgent attack. A suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device detonated at the main exit gate. I could feel the concussion from the explosion as it tore the gate off the tracks and damaged several buildings. Insurgent forces rushed the gate, firing several types of weapons. Hearing bullets ricochet off the ground and nearby buildings is something you hope you never experience. When the attack was over, several good people had lost their lives, including some innocent Afghan children that were nearby. I was one of the lucky ones and didn't get a scratch. How, I have no idea.
I had the honor of working with some of the smartest, brightest, hardworking people in my life during this deployment. Everyone pulled their weight, helped each other out, and were good battle-buddies. It's amazing to me how a diverse bunch of people, thrown together in a terrible environment, can run like a well-oiled machine. My team and I didn't "do well," we kicked some tail! I hope that the senior leaders of our U.S. and coalition forces have taken note of the lessons we learned, and the progress we made in applying cyber operations to the overall mission, so that we can continue to use more cyber capabilities and better ways to apply this 21st century tool set in the way we conduct modern operations.