VDF serves as technical lead for ongoing cyber assessment mission

A team of cyber experts from the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Defense Force conduct another in a series of cyber assessments. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

A team of cyber experts from the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Defense Force conduct another in a series of cyber assessments. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

SANDSTON, Va. — Cyber security experts from the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Defense Force continued their weeklong vulnerability assessments Dec. 13-16, 2016, and for the first time a member of the VDF served as the technical lead for the mission. 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, and this was the seventh conducted since March.

“This most recent mission went very well, and we were able conduct our full menu of services which provided value to the locality,” said Capt. Michael A. Kane, officer in charge of the assessment program. “The locality staff was very appreciative of our work ethic and the thorough nature of our assessment. They were aware of some of our findings and worked towards remediating the findings as time permitted them. In our experience, the cyber missions provide the locality with the third party validation needed to acquire resources from the local government.”

Kane explained that during this mission, 1st Lt. (Va.) David Rothrock of the VDF filled technical lead, bringing more than 20 years of information technology experience to the assessment. The VDF is also looking to recruit more Virginians with IT experience to join and potentially be part of future cyber defense missions.

“With this being his fourth mission, he was well versed in the mission process and his civilian background provides the assessment team and the locality with a resource that is highly sought after,” Kane said. At the end of the week, the locality’s IT director expressed great appreciation for the work the team accomplished.

“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 after the fourth round of assessments were complete earlier this year. “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,” Kane said. “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 as it had in earlier missions. “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,” he said.

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.

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 Fairfax-based Data Processing Unit 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 stood up a new cyber operations squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, and is actively recruiting and training new members. 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.

“There are plans to complete three assessments over the next three months, with the first one commencing later this month.” Kane said. “We have also reconnected with two localities from last year and plan on ending the state fiscal year in June with the completion of assessments at those two localities. As for the future, the tentative plan is to incorporate additional VDF personnel, and we have the potential to include Airmen from the new Air National Guard Cyber Operations Squadron. We look forward to the opportunity to continually serve the Commonwealth in this capacity.”

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.

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.