San Antonio Aims to Tap Into Air Force’s Prominence in Cybersecurity

San Antonio—Anyone who has heard of Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or Raytheon probably knows the federal government spends billions of dollars every year on defense. And while much of that funding goes toward buying missiles, planes, and ships, cybersecurity is gaining greater importance.

President Trump’s budget proposal includes a $3 billion boost to cybersecurity funding in the the Department of Homeland Security, according to The Hill, as well as millions more in funding for the Pentagon, FBI, and in research funding. Under former President Barack Obama, cybersecurity funding in the Department of Defense rose to $6.7 billion in the 2017 fiscal year.

But the best-known, large contractors aren’t the only companies benefiting from the increased value placement on cybersecurity, especially as areas of the Defense department look for innovative technology to protect the nation’s infrastructure and data. That’s playing out in San Antonio, where a unit of the Air Force is developing a so-called “Cyber Proving Ground” to test out cybersecurity technologies from companies that aren’t traditional contractors.

“There’s lots of vendors out there who don’t have initial security clearance, and aren’t interested in getting it, but they might have a good idea or an innovative opportunity that we can take advantage of. How do we bring them in to take advantage of it?” says Col. Timothy Franz, the commander of a cyberspace operations group (the 318th) that conducts training, tests, and develops tactics for cybersecurity for a wing of the 24th Air Force that’s based in San Antonio. “You need to have unclassified space where they can do that. This is going to give us some space to do that.”

(For a little background, the 24th Air Force is a division of the U.S. Cyber Command that handles cybersecurity for the Air Force, with headquarters in San Antonio. Other military branches have similar divisions focused on cybersecurity.)

The cyber proving ground (CPG) has been in the works since late 2015, and isn’t expected to officially open until later this year, Franz says. Certain areas of it are already in operation, such as classified collaborative spaces—they call them “foundry floors”—where Air Force members can work on rapidly solving cyber-focused problems or where they can bring in classified contractors to do so, he says.

Developing innovative cybersecurity tools can be a tough task when operating as a part of an organization like the Department of Defense, which has strict policies and rules that must be followed, related to finding and selecting contractors, Franz says. The CPG will provide the Air Force with more unclassified space, where a company with a potentially valuable technology can demonstrate it to the Air Force—a testing ground of sorts where the division can see whether it might be able to use potential technology, he says.

“If I have a space for you to just roll in, plug in, and to run through a project, that just makes things easier,” Franz says. “It’s one less hurdle I gotta go through to just have a conversation.”

In general, the Air Force is looking for cyber research that can be implemented immediately, Franz says. The work often relates to protecting communication over its space or aircraft networks, how it uses weapons systems, and infrastructure like power, utility, or water plants, he says. Units throughout the Air Force’s cybersecurity programs have varying focuses, ranging from defense to offense to support.

As the 24th Air Force tries to increase its interaction with the cybersecurity sector, it’s getting some help from the local San Antonio government. Port San Antonio, which was established as a public entity to attract new businesses and jobs by redeveloping an old 1,900-acre Air Force base, is building a 90,000-square-foot technology building for cybersecurity and other advanced technology companies.

Part of its pitch to attract cyber companies: proximity to the 24th Air Force cyber operations, which leases space on the Port’s 1,900 acres right across the street from the new building, says Roland Mower, the Port’s president and CEO. Mower expects the new technology space to be available early next year.

“Our goal in San Antonio is to create a community strategy that addresses the expansion of cyber,” Mower says. “The threat is not going away, it’s probably amplifying. There’s a need to address critical issues, not just military, but in the private sector as well.”

The Port already has private sector tenants in its current facilities, including locally based software developer IPSecure; Fidelis Cybersecurity, which also has offices in Waltham, MA, and Bethesda, MD; and Iomaxis, a company that is in the midst of expanding its operations at the Port.

Iomaxis builds and operates network infrastructures and architectures to transmit data, according to chief technology officer Tom Curley. The company has historically worked with the Department of Defense, but is trying to gain more commercial customers, Curley says.

The reputation that San Antonio is gaining as a cybersecurity hub is part of the reason Iomaxis has decided to expand in the city, Curley says. That reputation has been built, in part, due to promotion done by organizations such as CyberSecurity San Antonio, which is operated by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. The company also continues to work with government departments, including the 24th Air Force, though Curley declined to detail the aspects of the work.

Iomaxis is registered as a business in Texas, but has its corporate operations in Virginia. The company hopes to expand from about 15 employees in San Antonio to eventually about 200 overall, Curley says, and has leased about 5,000 square feet at the Port to create a Southwestern engineering center.

“We thought creating an engineering center out here helps us grow nationally and takes advantage of the talent and marketplace here in San Antonio,” Curley says.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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