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California National Guard's cyber team adjusts to COVID-19

By Staff Sgt. Ryan Sheldon | California National Guard | Aug. 6, 2020

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – COVID-19 has challenged the way California National Guard units operate throughout the state, with extra safety precautions taken to maintain the health and fitness of every drilling member. For the Cal Guard’s Cyber Protection Team (CPT) 171, the pandemic has challenged its commander and Soldiers to test and expand their cyber skill sets.

CPT 171, based out of Camp San Luis Obispo (SLO), protects California’s infrastructure from hackers and hostile actors online. The unit’s motto is: “Nation’s Best.” Its members strive to lead the way as innovative thinkers and doers.

The team concluded a five-day drill June 24-28 focused on collective training and building and refining standard operating procedures. “It’s pretty standard for an extended drill weekend,” said Maj. Mikael Magnuson, commander of the Cyber Protection Team 171.

“I had to consider the risks and benefits of bringing the CPT together at our home station even though it was a five-day drill,” said Magnuson. “After looking at all the pros and cons of it, I decided we would conduct this drill completely virtual.”

One plus to a virtual drill: “increasing the level of participation for those personnel who live out of state,” including Maryland, Ohio, Texas, Idaho and Washington, said Magnuson.

“The pandemic has led us to rethink our approach to how we’re going to accomplish a successful drill,” Magnuson said. “We haven’t changed anything aside from the communication method. We still have first formations, team meetings and our training objectives that we must complete. The only difference is we are looking at each other through the computer rather than face-to-face.”

Another benefit to holding drill online, according to Magnuson, is that real-world cyberattacks, for the most part, aren’t carried out on-site. He views this as an opportunity to hone a skill set that may be required in the future and better prepare his Soldiers.

“We’re taking the opportunity to further validate our tools and improve our remote capabilities while still achieving the training objectives that we had planned,” said Magnuson.

Having everyone in the unit online at the same time posed challenges, such as what program to use for the process to run smoothly. CPT 171 chose to stick with state applied programs.

“We share an account with the state’s Defensive Cyber Operations Element (DCOE) team, which allows us to leverage applications and their own version of Microsoft programs for collaboration purposes,” said Magnuson. “These programs allow me and my Soldiers to look at each other and have that conversation as if we were right in front of each other.”

One of the challenges that Magnuson faces is the fact that cyber awareness and security is new, so getting everyone on the same page and functioning together is crucial to mission success. For this drill, Magnuson wanted to focus on creating a cyber incident response effort and conducting battle drills on the products that have been created.

“The first couple of days were spent in small teams documenting and developing code for the battle drills they would conduct later toward the end of the drill weekend,” he said. “After the coding was complete, the command team picked out tasks and documented detailed steps as to how they would complete them and automate them, if possible. The tasks may seem small now, but they will grow into a larger number later.”

While drilling virtually certainly presents challenges, Magnuson is confident in his Soldiers' capabilities.

“This is how we want to be the Nation’s Best,” said Magnuson. “If someone asked the 91st Cyber Brigade commander, ‘Who is the best CPT?’ I want her to answer, without hesitation, CPT 171. I think efforts like these are going to put us in that position.”