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Partnerships, realism key for virtual Cyber Shield 2020

By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith | National Guard Bureau | Sept. 9, 2020

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Annual exercises like Cyber Shield 2020 bring an added layer of readiness to National Guard cyber missions, Guard senior leaders recently said during a roundtable discussion.

The exercise, scheduled Sept. 12-27, will involve more than 800 Army and Air National Guard members and local, state, and federal government agencies. It will also include industry experts, election, and utility officials.

“This is why Cyber Shield is so important,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Neely, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, who is also a master cyberspace officer. “It is one of the few cyber defense exercises that operate in a secured but unclassified environment, [allowing] us to bring in partners from outside of the Department of Defense.”

Neely added that many recent high-profile cyberattacks prove Guard units play crucial roles in cyber defense and mitigation outside Defense Department networks.

“At Cyber Shield, we train on vital cyber skills, but we also train on teamwork with partners who come from different backgrounds,” said Neely. “Battle drills help us establish and exercise the framework for future responses to cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure, communities, states, and our nation.”

National Guard officials had planned for a physical location for this year’s exercise, but when COVID-19 hit, they set a virtual platform into motion, according to George Battistelli, chief of the information technology, security, compliance, and readiness division for the Army National Guard.

“It has really been a testament to the agility and the ability of the National Guard staff to pivot where we can take an exercise that usually takes a year to plan, and then plan [for a virtual environment] in three months,” said Battistelli.

Cyber Shield 2020 includes scenarios requiring defense against maneuvers orchestrated by opposing forces. For Army Col. Teri Williams, the officer in charge of the exercise, this realism is key.

“We turn up the heat,” said Williams, who also serves as commander of the Virginia Army National Guard’s 91st Cyber Brigade. “We try to make the environment for our National Guardsmen more intense, or at least as intense as an actual incident response.”

The virtual nature of the exercise ensures safety during the pandemic remains a top priority, with only a handful of cyber troops operating out of centralized units.

The majority will participate remotely from individual locations in what Williams termed “Fort Living Room.”

There will also be a new operational tempo in the virtual environment, said Battistelli.

“Last year, we did an exercise where the scenario took the entire week,” he said. “This year, we separated it into vignettes, so each day is its own cyber event or cyber training exercise.”

One reason for this, Battistelli added, is to establish a baseline from all the participants’ skill sets and levels.

“Some are going to excel in vulnerability assessment, and some are going to excel in malware identification,” he said. “The goal is to get everybody on the same page.”

Moving the exercise to a virtual setting comes with some challenges.

“Typically, when we have everybody co-located, we don’t have to worry about time zones,” said Battistelli, adding that because there will be Guard cyber elements from all 50 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia, exercise officials will be required to, “make sure all of this syncs.”

Additional challenges could involve the use of collaborative apps that have ticketing systems and chat functions, said Williams.

“In this day and age, we certainly have enough tools [to] maintain communications but sometimes that could get oversaturated,” she said. “So that will be a real challenge this year — to make sure the right information goes to the right people at the right level versus getting people so bogged down [with communicating] that they are not executing training.”

Such challenges, said Battistelli, are suited for Guard cyber troops, as many of them can leverage their civilian-acquired skills from positions with cybersecurity and technology companies.

“We are able to pull from this huge talent pool, where they are actually coming in and training their peers,” he said. “It’s an escalation of talent.”

In the end, Neely said this year’s exercise is an opportunity to showcase how National Guard cyber elements can fully engage current and future threats — despite outside challenges.

“During this pandemic, it’s important for all to show resilience, especially in the Defense Department,” he said. “And the execution of Cyber Shield, even in a virtual environment, is an example of that.”