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Airman’s Spotlight: Senior Master Sgt. John Penland

Senior Master Sgt. John Penland, 47th Communications Squadron superintendent, discusses both his view and forecast for the U.S. Air Force’s cyberspace domain. Through his experiences, he says, it’s important the USAF maintains and exercises good security over the domain, before any adversary has the chance to either catch up or attack the United States. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Daniel Hambor)


Since the inception of the modern cyberspace and subsequent concepts of cyber warfare, the U.S. Air Force has led the charge in defense of this domain for the United States.

It’s a domain that the 47th Communications Squadron’s superintendent, Senior Master Sgt. John Penland, has suited up in ABUs and defended for more than 20 years. From picking up the telephone to assist a customer in setting up their email inbox, to setting up wireless access points in remote, hostile territory, one could say Penland has seen and accomplished a lot.

“It could take all day to go through a list of mission sets that require cyberspace,” Penland said. “It’s turned into a battle space. Cyberspace is built by us, we can manipulate it, and we can control it—and our adversaries can do the same thing. We need to be bigger, better and faster than any adversary, so we can stay on top.”

Though commonly associated with increasing the speed, reliability and capabilities of already present systems, another branch of the cyberspace warfighting domain, Combat Communications, seeks to provide these capabilities not only in hostile environments but in places where network connectivity seems nearly impossible.

“A lot of those missions we went on were to set up imaging and communications in these remote regions, so we can see what’s going on,” he said. “I saw that at a tactical level, tip-of-the-spear so to speak, how reliant they were on communications.”

Even with the call for speedy, capable and reliable information systems, according to Penland, it all starts with training at the lowest level. The 47th Flying Training Wing, which trains nearly 400 pilots every year trains pilots to not only fly military aircraft but keeps them up to speed on new developments and systems in their corresponding aircraft.

“A lot of the young pilots are going to be in a cockpit somewhere in the air, or [in] a remote console controlling an unmanned vehicle. It all starts right here,” he said. “If we can’t get that right here, what makes us think we’re going to get that right when they’re actually doing the warfighting mission somewhere else.”

Looking toward the future of the cyberspace domain, Penland foresees more Airmen taking on cybersecurity and combat communications roles, while providing the opportunity for civilians and contractors to further the technical support needs of the force back home.

“The goal is for a third party to take over network maintenance and first-level technical support, and free up military personnel to focus more on mission assurance and defensive cyber operations for primarily overseas and contingency locations,” he said. “The effort will need everyone’s support; civilians, military and contractors.”

Through years of experience in this emerging yet vital domain in the force, Penland concludes that what’s most important at the end of the day is a little bit of gratitude.

“I believe it’s vital to focus on the positive things: the people around you, the opportunities presented to you, and being grateful for something every day especially in times of hardship,” he said. “Gratitude is the elixir for joy and fulfillment, where its absence leaves a broth for resentment and regret. Those feelings may never fully expire, so which do you want more of in your life?”