Although modern warfare can be every bit as brutal as the battles Americans have fought in the past, a new combat domain is rapidly becoming the focus of many defense experts, in which America’s first line of defense isn’t a heavily armed soldier at a gate, but rather a technically minded expert sitting at a desk.
While the imagery associated with cyber-warfare tends not to be as dramatic as scenes from combat zones in Iraq or Syria, the reality of the matter is clear: cyber warfare potentially poses a much larger threat to the average American’s way of life than terrorist insurgents in Mosul. Whether the target is America’s power grid, which if brought down could result in the starvation death of millions, or financial institutions (most money in the U.S. is now little more than a line on a spreadsheet), a concerted cyber-attack levied by a well-trained and equipped adversary could cripple life as we know it here in the United States. Fortunately, soldiers and airmen at Fort Meade are currently training to protect the country from just such an attack
The U.S. Cyber Command recently completed Cyber Guard 2017, a weeklong exercise intended to put America’s Cyber Mission Force to the test in a realistic attack that approximates the strategy a foreign nation or terrorist group may use to try to disrupt America’s digital infrastructure. This year’s Cyber Guard is the sixth such exercise to be conducted by CYBERCOM, and this year, they’ve partnered with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI in order to ensure proper interagency coordination and cooperation in the event of such an attack.
Cyber Guard uses a wide variety of digital attacks to test the mettle of America’s cyber-soldiers, as well as their ability to coordinate responses with their peers in the National Guard, Army Reserves, the intelligence community and even a number of public and private sector organizations. In all, more than 700 “cyber operators” participated in the exercise, working together to counter threats ranging from fairly innocuous all the way to nearly catastrophic.
“I will accept failure in a training environment if it generates knowledge and insight that makes us better,” said Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who also serves as director of the National Security Agency and Central Security Service. “What I constantly tell the team leads is it’s about pushing the envelope. It’s about challenging your teams, and it’s about trying different things.”
Ultimately, five teams from America’s Cyber Mission Force were evaluated based on their operational capabilities, speed in assessing and coordinating a response, and their agility and precision in implementing the responses they deemed appropriate to risks of varying degree.
“The maturation of the exercise is impressive,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. David M. Dermanelian, CYBERCOM’s training and exercises director. “We’re doing more than just network activity. We are providing the best venue to date for operators to experience the most realistic training environment possible, both in terms of network and scenario.”
Despite the success of Cyber Guard ’17, defense officials are quick to point out that the United States still has a long way to go in order to secure dominance on the ever-changing, and still rather new, cyber battlefield.
“While we’ve been doing this for a few years, we are always learning,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. J. Kevin McLaughlin, Cybercom’s deputy commander. “Every year, we learn something new that we wish we would have thought about the year before. This is still a domain of warfare in its infancy in terms of how we think about it.”
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense