Ctrl, Alt, Defeat: 911th CS Airman bridges tactical and strategic levels of cyber warfare

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeffrey Grossi & Staff Sgt. Brandon Shuman
  • 911th Airlift Wing

"She’s been a rockstar here, and everybody knows it.”

Those were the first words that came to mind for Senior Master Sgt. David Gross, 911th Communication Squadron Superintendent, when asked about the newly STEP promoted, 911th CS NCO in charge of cyber defense operations.

“When the Pentagon reached out to the 911th Airlift Wing looking for stories about Airmen doing awesome things around the wing and in their civilian life, the 911th CS had the perfect person for the spotlight," said Gross. “Master Sgt. Mariah Denney.”

Denney spent most of her active-duty career at the combat command level. She spent six active-duty years at U.S. Strategic Command then got a civilian job working at the joint cyber center at STRATCOM and a one-year stint at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“I essentially ran their intrusion detection system, their firewalls, seemingly all of their cyber tools, essentially, from Hawaii, and then I came back to STRATCOM,” said Denney.

Denney eventually needed a change of pace, which led her to joining the 911th AW. Gross received a phone call from Denney about two years ago. Having a solid connection with the day-to-day operations of a major command, she wanted to increase her bandwidth of knowledge by getting experience at the squadron level.

“Right away I knew we had a need for someone in that position and the skills from the career field that she has,” said Gross. “So instantly, it was like, ‘Yeah! Bring her on in!’ She made an immediate impact. Instantly filling a void. From her military leadership, civilian leadership, and her interpersonal skills – just who she is, as a human being. She gelled a lot of new people together instantly.”

As a traditional reservist, Denney’s job is twofold. On one side, she performs customer engagement with Reserve Citizen Airmen and civilians on base; troubleshooting problems, triaging phone calls, and helping people get the network access they require. On the cyber operations side, she focuses on the network by taking account of a diverse interconnected system and works with full-time Air Reserve Technicians who conduct vulnerability scanning across the network, patching vulnerabilities in the network with the latest updates.

“We focus on the holistic cyber hygiene of the networks,” said Denney. “I'm in a unique situation. Cyber and cyber defensive operations are really kind of my passion. During the week, I work for U.S. Cyber Command as a branch chief for defensive cyber operations and DODIN operations.”

DODIN or Department of Defense Information Networks are the globally connected, end-to-end set of information capabilities and associated processes. Useful for collecting, processing, storing, disseminating, and managing information to warfighters and policy makers alike.

Denney continued, “From that perspective, we have the mission to defend the homeland from malicious cyber actors, but I'm looking at it from a very strategic perspective – a lot of policy, strategy, campaigning, planning, dropping orders down to the Air Force. Then I come here on the weekend, and I'm the one implementing those orders that we had dropped."

For Denney, being able to not only see the strategic flow of decision making but to also see how those decisions affect units at a tactical level provides a unique perspective and puts her in a position to act as a network bridge between the two groups.

“I am a framework of frameworks that is open to interpretation of both art and science. I need data to make decision,s” said Denney. “Essentially, the biggest thing is to have your evidence and all the information you want to base a decision from. I know why we are doing what we're doing when we're here [Pittsburgh] drilling on the weekend. I know how important it is because I've spent the entire month before conceptualizing and arguing all the points in rooms with senior leaders. Then on the other side, when I'm discussing with senior leaders, I have the perspective of saying, ‘Okay, but here is how the comm squadron operates, here’s how it would be implemented in practice and here’s how long it will actually take. When you're on the keyboard tactically, here's how the steps would go.'”

During her annual tour to Camp Dawson in 2023, Denney was able to explain these processes to not only the 911th CS but to 914th CS hailing from Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

“It was very helpful in understanding this complicated thing that we do here,” said Gross. “Honestly, what makes her such a rockstar is she's able to communicate to people in English – in a way people understand it. For our Airmen who are younger or weren't in the career field prior serving, they get to hear the why and see here's the how. Where those meet – that’s where Denney comes in.”

If being a dominant force in the domains of cyber warfare wasn’t enough, Denney was selected as one of the first individuals to hold a special experience identifier noting her unique qualifications to perform gender analyses for missions across the DOD. In cyber career fields, enlisted Airmen normally only obtain it for their 8570 certification requirements that include Security+, a global certification that validates the baseline skills necessary to perform core security functions and pursue an IT security career.

“In a hybrid between both my civilian capacity and my capacity on base, I worked with Women’s Peace and Security and became a certified gender focal point," said Denney. “Earlier in 2023, I helped facilitate a course on training other gender focal points for the DOD and to include Air Force and Space Force out of the National Capital Region.”

As a GFP, Denney advocates for and incorporates gender perspectives and analysis for missions across the DOD. While it shares some similarities with diversity and inclusion initiatives, GFPs take information gathered by DI efforts, operationalize it and take it to the battlefield.

“When you're going to or setting up a FOB [forward operating base], what unique things do you have to account for? Like what is the culture of the career fields that will be there initially, and what do they have to have? How do you look at the different types of people that we have in the DOD to basically make them more efficient across our missions. You get to have those conversations about who people really are. And that kind of ‘whole Airman concept' is the culture that we have."

Denney's ability to seamlessly navigate both the strategic and tactical realms of cyber operations positions her as a key player in the framework of the 911th CS.