Welcome to Scott Air Force Base, 2.0.

As the Air Force downsizes many traditional career fields, it is investing massively in one of its top priorities -- cybersecurity.

And Scott, the nearly century-old air base outside Mascoutah, is poised to benefit enormously for many years to come from its rapidly growing role as a central hub for Pentagon cybersecurity operations.

Two weeks ago the Air Force announced that Scott would get two new cybersecurity squadrons, for a total of 320 military and civilian jobs. The Air Force also will spend $16 million to remodel and expand existing buildings to house the new units.

But the addition of the new squadrons -- whose missions include defending military and civilian data networks, as well as probing and attacking enemy networks -- will likely be the start of a high-tech job boon at and around Scott, according to civilian cybersecurity experts interviewed.

"It's not just jobs," said A.N. Ananth, the CEO of EventTracker, a Maryland firm that helps military customers monitor online network attacks. "It will be high-paying jobs that will be difficult to replace."

As a result, the chances of Scott being hurt in the next round of base closures have diminished considerably, according to Ananth.

"The investment the government is making there will be central to the Department of Defense for a long time to come," said Ananth.

Each day thousands of cyber attacks against U.S. military and corporate targets are documented.

The U.S. Air Force's top commanders, who are tasked with the main job of defending against these tasks, have grown increasingly worried that as America becomes more networked and reliant on the Internet, its most valuable infrastructure assets -- the national power grid, nuclear power plants, food suppliers, hospitals and water treatment plants -- are becoming more vulnerable to crippling cyberattacks.

Many of these attacks originate in China, one of the combatants in a undeclared conflict being fought every day that few Americans know about.

"There is already a large cyberwar going on right now that people just don't understand," said Charles Tendell, the CEO of Azorian Cyber Security, of Colorado Springs, Colo.

The nature of this war came to light in May, when the U.S. Justice Department unsealed indictments of five members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, who were charged with hacking into the networks of major American corporations, including the Westinghouse Corp.

The indictments alleged the Chinese hackers had infected corporate networks with malware. The defendants, who remain at large, also allegedly copied hundreds of thousands of sensitive emails having to do with the corporations' negotiating strategies with the Chinese government, according to the indictments.

Interviews with cybersecurity experts, as well as Air Force planning documents, indicate that three locations have emerged nationwide as the main hubs for Pentagon cybersecurity:

  • Fort Meade, Md., the home of the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency
  • Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, the home of the 24th Air Force -- which will oversee the two squadrons sent to Scott -- and joint force headquarters for cyber operations
  • Scott Air Force Base, which is also home to cybersecurity operations that already protect the U.S. Transportation Command. In addition, Scott is home for the Defense Information Systems Agency (Continental US), the Internet service provider for the U.S. military and home for its own sizable cybersecurity operation.

In the shadowy world of military computer hacking, synergy is the name of the game.

The existing cybersecurity operations at Scott are a key reason it is rapidly attaining prominence as a cybersecurity hub, according to Tony Cole, chief technology officer for FireEye, a cybersecurity firm based in Milpitas, Calif., that works closely with the Air Force.

Scott is a superb candidate for future cybersecurity operations because of the vast data-gathering infrastructure already put in place by U.S. Transcom.

Every day huge numbers of emails and spreadsheets move across U.S. Transcom networks, which consist of an immensely powerful array of data "pipes," according to Cole.

"Scott has a lot of capability in that area," Cole said. "One of the great things they have there is big pipes, which are also needed for the analysis of data across the board."

Scott is also attractive because of its abundant acreage, providing plenty of opportunities for the construction of highly secure, state-of-the-art buildings, according to Cole.

"So I think you're going to see a very nice little industry spring up in the very near term around Scott," Cole said.

Metro-east leaders are hoping that Scott's synergies will prove attractive to the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, a combination intelligence and combat support outfit with a major base in downtown St. Louis.

But NGA has outgrown its aging facilities in St. Louis, and it has designated Scott as one of six finalists for a new facility that will bring with it 3,000 jobs. The other five finalists are located in various locations in and around St. Louis.

Cybersecurity experts agreed, however, that it would make the most sense to bring NGA to Scott in view of its high levels of security and virtually unlimited room for growth.

Ellen Krohne, the executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which is spearheading the effort to protect Scott from future base closures, said the fact two new squadrons are coming to Scott serves as validation of her group's strategy to focus on cybersecurity "because it's one of the fastest growing areas... This is exciting."

Alarmed by recent security breaches, and worried about the progress nations such as China and Russia have made in cyber-attack capabilities, the U.S. Air Force is ramping up its cybersecurity forces.

Air Force Maj. Gen. James McLaughlin, the 24th Air Force's current commander, recently announced the Air Force is working on a Pentagon campaign to recruit 6,000 personnel from all military branches to join 133 cyber teams by 2016, with 39 of those teams assigned to the Air Force.

"In this area, this isn't a full sprint," McLaughlin told The Air Force Times recently. "You've got to build the capacity needed in the Air Force and beyond that."

What's more, the Air Force plans to base a total of 1,541 cyber mission force personnel at Scott and Joint Base San Antonio, as well as at for National Security Agency sites, according to planning documents obtained by the News-Democrat.

The Air Force's big push for an expansion in cybersecurity reflects the fact the U.S. had fallen behind the curve when it came to protecting against the cyber-warfare powers of nations like China and Russia , according to Charles Tendell, of Azorian Cyber Security, of Colorado Springs, Colo.

"And they've been very effective," Tendell said. "Now it's time for the USA to actually step in to develop its own defensive and offensive capabilities against them."

©2014 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)