Arkansas Air National Guard Participates in Cyber Shield 2022, the DoD’s Largest Unclassified Cyber Defense Exercise

  • Published
  • By John Oldham
  • 189th Airlift Wing

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark., -- Sixteen Arkansas Air National Guard cyber and computer security specialists honed their skills, June 5-17, as part of Cyber Shield 2022, the Department of Defense’s largest unclassified cyber defense exercise involving approximately 800 National Guard cyber specialists as well as law enforcement, legal, government and corporate partners from across the country.

This year the exercise was being conducted at the Army National Guard’s Professional Education Center on Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Ark. Service members and civilian experts from 20 states and the U.S. territory of Guam gathered for the exercise.

The Arkansas Air National Guard members are part of the 223rd Cyber Operations Squadron and 189th Airlift Wing based at Little Rock Air Force, Ark.

“It’s a high-stress situation,” 2d Lt. Timothy Tate, a 223rd COS cyber warfare officer, said. “They pour on the stress ... and there were learning points all along the way.”

He said eight Arkansas Air Guardsmen were on the Blue Team, one was an actor as a network owner, and six were assigned to the White Cell, and they helped evaluate the overall exercise.

“The biggest thing is they validate their skills,” Tate said. “We have really skilled individuals, and so this exercise is set up so that they can actually validate and feel confident in the skills that they have been developing. The skill that they possess are hard-fought skills. They work very, very hard. The government spends a lot of money to make sure that they are highly skilled individuals to be able to identify these threats. And so to validate those skills is great.”

The annual exercise, led by the Army National Guard and assisted by the Air National Guard, is a concentrated effort to develop, train and exercise cyber forces in the areas of computer network internal defensive measures and cyber incident response, according to the National Guard Bureau.

These cyber defensive measures can be employed to defend and protect critical cyber infrastructure including industry, utilities, schools, health care, food suppliers as well as military networks.

“Cyber warfare is not just our future — it is our contemporary reality,” said Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, during an April U.S. Cyber Command summit. “The National Guard is positioned to be leaders in the digital domain and continues to enhance our nation’s cyber capabilities in combat and in the homeland.

“With 4,000 National Guard cyber operators across 40 states, many working for leading tech companies, the National Guard has the knowledge, skills and abilities to play a critical role in the DOD’s cyber enterprise,” he added.

Cyber Shield 22 brings together the nation’s top cyber defense professionals from National Guard Soldiers and Airmen to various governmental, nongovernmental and high-tech partners. This year’s exercise also involves teams from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Effective cyber defense requires unclassified collaboration across multiple partners, said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard and a master cyberspace officer. “We all need to be talking about these attacks and where they are coming from. To do that requires effective relationships and communications across all levels of government as well as the private sector.”

Neely said that many of those professional relationships the National Guard shares with its partners in cyber defense “all began at a Cyber Shield.”

The first week of the exercise involved training classes and hands-on exercises for participants. During this part of the exercise, service members had the opportunity to take top-notch information technology classes and earn industry-standard certifications that can be used both in the military and in civilian careers. These 15 different classes and certifications typically cost hundreds of dollars outside the exercise and are provided to participants at no cost.

On June 12, the second phase of the exercise began. This second week puts the cybersecurity service members’ skills to the test pitting them against an opposing force of hackers. The cyber defenders will work on identifying an intrusion into a computer network and then countering the hacker’s actions, said George Battistelli, Cyber Shield 2022 exercise director and the deputy chief information officer for the Army National Guard.

“It is important for us to continue to train our Soldiers using real-world events, so they are able to cut down the noise and focus on the mission,” Battistelli said. “In the exercise, and in the real world, we strive to achieve and maintain information advantage over our adversaries.”

This year the exercise is focusing on responding to a “supply chain” attack similar to the SolarWinds attack that affected many corporate and government networks, Battistelli said. A supply chain attack is when the hackers insert malicious code into third-party software such as IT monitoring software. When the software, or updates to the software, are installed, the malicious software is also installed allowing the hackers access to the corporate and government networks. The SolarWinds attack infiltrated a wide array of corporate and government networks. The exercise also infuses social media “noise” into the scenario, making the exercise as realistic as possible.

This year the Blue Teams – the “good guys” – worked to defend the military’s own computer networks. In the past, the exercise scenario has had the Blue Teams responding under the authority of a state governor. This year, they responded under federal authority. This changed the policy and regulatory bounds, as well as the legal authorities of the response.

The exercise also helped train National Guard lawyers on assisting cyber service members in staying within those bounds and authorities, said Minnesota Army National Guard Capt. Cumah Blake, the lead staff judge advocate for the exercise.

“The Cyber Shield exercise is a great model,” Blake said. “The exercise pulls together an integrated team of experts, not just cyberspace experts. It addresses not just cyberspace operations in a vacuum, but how do you pull together other members of your team and make those missions successful.”

The Red Team – the “bad guys” – included some of the best cyber experts in the industry, said Illinois Army National Guard Lt. Col. Jeff Fleming, the exercise officer-in-charge. Fleming said that members of the Red Team last year wrote their own malicious code and a bug bounty hunter brought proof of concept code to test a zero day vulnerability he discovered to train the Blue Teams with very sophisticated and challenging situations.

This year the exercise had a “Purple Day” when the Red Team met with the Blue Team to discuss the attacks, what was done, and where and when it could have been caught. This will help train the cyber service members to defend against real-world attacks.

The training cyber service members receive at Cyber Shield is vitally important to the ongoing effort to protect the nation in cyberspace.

“We have to be right 100 percent of the time,” Battistelli said. “Our adversaries only need to be right once to get into our networks.”