Va. Army Guard, VDF cyber specialists continue network assessments

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Virginia Army National Guard Cyber experts assigned to the Fairfax-based Data Processing Unit and the Virginia Defense Force conduct their fourth weeklong vulnerability assessment Aug. 9, 2016, to help a Virginia locality strengthen its network security. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

SANDSTON, Va. — Virginia Army National Guard cyber experts assigned to the Fairfax-based Data Processing Unit completed their fourth weeklong vulnerability assessment Aug. 12, 2016, and members of the Virginia Defense Force joined the team for the first time to help a Virginia locality strengthen its network security. The first assessment was conducted in March 2016 after Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe authorized funds to put Virginia Guard personnel on state active duty to conduct a series of assessments aimed at improving network security in the state.

“Cyber security is a key priority for the governor, and these assessments provide an opportunity for our personnel to bring their considerable skills and experience to the table to provide unique and much-needed assessments to localities in the state,” explained Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. “Adding VDF personnel expands our capabilities and helps us meet the demands for this successful program. It also helps in growing the joint operations mindset because we don’t operate just as an Army or Air Force organization but as a joint team with other services as well as state agencies and community partners.”

To manage the assessment mission, a unified command was established consisting of the Office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Office of the Secretary of Technology, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Center for Innovative Technology and Virginia Department of Military Affairs. DMA is the state agency that oversees the Virginia Army National Guard, Virginia Air National Guard and Virginia Defense Force.

“Overall, the cyber support mission has been successful in educating the localities on cyber best practices and helping them to increase their cyber security posture,” said Capt. Michael A. Kane, officer in charge of the assessment team. “During the assessments, we helped to identify critical vulnerabilities and minor shortfalls, provided education on the resources and tools available for better network security and security awareness training for their users. The most important accomplishment from my perspective is that we established partnerships across the state that will pay dividends in the unfortunate event of a cyber-emergency.”

Kane said the integration of the VDF in the mission went extremely well.

“The two individuals came highly qualified with backgrounds in information technology support for the government and as the current chief operating officer for an IT consulting firm,” Kane said. “The addition of the Virginia Defense Force has not only provided us with access to highly qualified personnel for the assessments but has also added another equity partner in the goal of increasing the cyber security posture of the commonwealth.”

Additional assessments will take place in the coming months. In the interest in security, details about the locations where the assessments are being conducted will not be released, Williams said.

“Our Soldiers and VDF troops are providing an invaluable service to the commonwealth and our communities,” said Brig. Gen. Lapthe Flora, Virginia National Guard Assistant Adjutant General for Army Strategic Initiatives, after visiting the site of the assessment. “Preventive work like this is very important, and this mission also helps to strengthen our ties with community partners. I was very favorably impressed with the professionalism and expertise the members of the team demonstrated.”

Virginia National Guard cyber specialists are trained to the same standards of their active duty counterparts, but they also bring with them extensive experience and skill for civilian jobs in the information technology field, Williams explained. VDF personnel were recruited from existing units based on the expertise they already possess from their civilian careers.

“The effort to use National Guard Soldiers to train, assist and advise Virginia localities was the result of ongoing dialogue with the Cyber Working Group,” explained Col. Adam Volant, commander of the Information Operations Support Center (Cyber.) “Working in concert with the Virginia Information Technologies Agency and state authorities, an agreement was made on prevention of cyber vulnerabilities by conducting assessments. We had tremendous support from the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security and the Secretary of Technology.”

Volant credited Governor McAuliffe for his support in a number of successful initiatives including establishment of the cyber commission, cyber working groups and agreement on authorities in coordination with the Attorney General of Virginia.

Volant also singled out the significant experience Soldiers from the DPU bring to the mission. “DPU Soldiers have been trained by their full time employers in addition to the military training and bring critical professional certifications with them to the mission. They are relied upon for their expertise in the information technology field in the civilian sector, and we are fortunate to be able put them to work helping making networks in Virginia localities safer.”

As part of ongoing growth of cyber forces throughout the Department of Defense, the National Guard announced plans to activate 13 additional cyber units spread throughout 23 states by the end of fiscal year 2019, according to an Army news release published in December 2015.

“Our goal for cyber defense is to train, equip and provide highly-skilled forces responsive to the needs of the nation,” said Army Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau at the time of the announcement. “Working with the Army and Air Force, our cyber squadrons and teams will provide trained and ready Soldiers and airmen to support requirements established by the services and U.S. Cyber Command.”

The Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing will stand up a new cyber operations squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, according to multiple announcements made Dec. 9, 2015, by the Chief of National Guard Bureau, the Governor of Virginia and the Virginia Congressional Delegation. Virginia was one of four states selected to stand up cyber operations squadrons by the Department of Defense. Approximately 70 Airmen will be assigned to the cyber operations squadron, and they will be a combination of full-time Virginia National Guard Airmen and traditional drill status Guard Airmen who normally train one weekend a month and 15 days a year.

Originally formed in January 1975 to provide data processing support to National Guard Bureau, the mission of the DPU has evolved over the years and is now poised to conduct full spectrum cyber operations. The unit has more than 160 Soldiers whose missions include conducting web risk and vulnerability assessment in support of U. S. Army Cyber Command and other federal agencies. They are also prepared to support the Commonwealth of Virginia with computer network defense and recovery operations.

The Virginia Defense Force is the Virginia National Guard’s all-volunteer reserve force authorized by the Code of Virginia and reporting to the Adjutant General of Virginia. Members of the VDF volunteer their time for training and community support and are only paid when called to state active duty by an authorization from the Governor of Virginia.

The VDF is organized into four regiments: 1st Regiment based in Richmond and covering the Petersburg and Hampton Roads area, 2nd Regiment based in Manassas and covering the Northern Virginia area, 3rd Regiment based in Winchester and running through the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia area and 4th Regiment based in Lynchburg and covering through Roanoke into Southwest Virginia.

Members of the VDF train and operate side-by-side with the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Air National Guard as part of a multi-agency state response team. They are integrated into all Guard domestic operations and serve as a force multiplier to provide important additional capabilities to help the Guard assist citizens in their time of need.