Virginia cyber warriors join New England exercise

Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Fairfax-based 123rd and 124th Cyber Protection Battalions, 91st Cyber Brigade take part in the Cyber Yankee network defense exercise June 8, 2018, at Joint Base Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)

JOINT BASE CAPE COD, Mass. — Fourteen Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Fairfax-based 123rd and 124th Cyber Protection Battalions, 91st Cyber Brigade participated in the Cyber Yankee network defense exercise May 31-June 12, 2018, at Joint Base Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Massachusetts National Guard hosts the annual exercise focused on developing stronger collaboration across all New England’s cyber network defenses, and more than 200 Soldiers and Airmen took part in the training.

Virginia Soldiers participated both as “Blue Team” members led by the Joint Base Cape Cod, Massachusetts-based 126th Cyber Protection Battalion with Soldiers from five different New England states defending servers, websites, databases and computer programs and “Red Team” members launching exercise cyber attacks from simulated hackers, criminal elements and international non-state actors.

“It has been an amazing learning experience,” said 1st Lt. Charles Mayer, a cyber operations officer assigned to the 123rd CPB, said about the exercise. “There are some people taking part in their third or fourth Cyber Yankee exercise, and it is great sitting next to them and learning from them.”

Mayer worked on one of the Blue Teams tasked with protecting the network for a water utility. In addition to the simulated computer network, the exercise also included a simulated hardware system that controls water pumps and distribution.

In one of the training scenarios, a network intrusion was detected, and Mayer explained that they were able to conduct the cyber forensics analysis to try and determine how it was compromised. Mayer explained that he also learned about the dynamics of how a cyber team operated.

The exercise also showcased how Guard personnel bring civilian experience with to the fight, and they take experience from their military training back to their civilian jobs.

Sgt. Tyler Winchester, a cyber operations specialist assigned to 143rd Cyber Warfare Company, 123rd CPB, worked as one of the Red Team members that launched various network attacks agains the Blue Teams. He works as a cyber risk manager in his civilian career. Winchester explained that he has been able to gain industry-standard certifications through his military training that he takes back to his civilian job, and he also has training, certifications and experience from his civilian job that he brings to his military duties.

“I am part of team launching the Blue Team exploits, so I know how they should work,” he said. “I am getting first hand experience seeing it and working through the process, and this helps me think about the kinds of things bad actors might try to do to a network in my civilian job.”

Neither Mayer or Winchester currently hold an official 17 series Army Cyber MOS, but their civilian experience and on-the-job military training helped prepare them for the exercise. Mayer is an 11A infantry officer with network defense experience who plans to attend the Cyber Operations Officer Course. Winchester is a Communications and Information Systems specialist who most recently deployed overseas where he was installing and maintaining satellite systems used for unit communications, and he plans to pursue cyber warrant officer training.

In addition to the individual training opportunities for Soldiers like Mayer and Winchester, Cyber Yankee provided an opportunity for 91st Cyber Command leaders to gain a better understanding of how a large-scale cyber exercise is conducted and could be replicated in Virginia.

Capt. Michael Bell, the 91st Cyber Brigade’s intelligence officer, served in an operations capacity at Cyber Yankee, and he explained it was important to see how the exercise was run. The Massachusetts National Guard’s 126th Cyber Protection Battalion used Cyber Yankee as a validation exercise for possible future upcoming federal mobilizations, and Virginia needs to be able to do the same thing for its battalions, he said.

Like every other National Guard unit, the 91st balances the demands of both a federal and state mission, and Cyber Yankee gave personnel a better understanding about domestic cyber operations, Bell said.

“Actions that Soldiers take in Cyber Yankee are different from a wartime scenario,” Bell said. “We understand that we need to have two different training tracks for federal and state missions and work that into our training plans.”

The 91st Cyber Brigade was activated as the Army National Guard’s first cyber brigade Sept. 17, 2017, and it provides training and readiness oversight for cyber units across 31 states and deploys personnel to meet the demands of growing cyber mission sets throughout the U.S. Army and Department of Defense.

Read more about the 91st at go.usa.gov/xQHGH.

View more photos from the exercise on Flickr:
Virginia cyber warriors join New England exercise