MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Members of the West Virginia and Illinois National Guard, Defense Information Systems Agency employees and West Virginia University students partnered with Polish allies to compete in the world's largest international cyber defense exercise run virtually by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, April 12-16.
Locked Shields is a unique cyber defense exercise, offering the most complex technical live-fire challenge in the world, with more than 1,200 experts from nearly 30 nations participating.
During the exercise, 22 blue teams competed to defend a fictional country. The West Virginia National Guard – Defense Information Systems Agency Mission Assurance – Cyber members were part of a blue team led by Poland that included additional National Guard members supporting the event both in the exercise and real-world capacities.
WVNG Maj. William Keber said it was an honor to work with the United States European Command, DISA, Illinois National Guard, WVU, and the cyber warrior partners in Poland's National Cyber Security Centre.
"The exercise was challenging and very well organized," he said. "Every one of our blue team members left the exercise with a renewed interest in cybersecurity and feeling that they all improved their technical abilities."
The Army Interagency and Training Education Center Critical Infrastructure Protection Battalion provided 17 Soldiers, including exercise players, IT support, and logistics augmentation. This is the first time the West Virginia National Guard has participated in a cyber exercise of this caliber.
Participants were graded on how well they protected their networks while following rules of engagement for gameplay.
"Participating in a cyber exercise of this scale while recognizing the impact of disinformation in warfare was extremely relevant and beneficial as we all try to understand our role in this space," said Capt. Stacy Gault, 167th Airlift Wing public affairs officer, West Virginia National Guard.
Partnered with the WVNG DISA MA-C team and National Guard support were students from West Virginia University from engineering, cybersecurity, media and law courses.
"You just simply can't get that [experience] in the classroom," said Scott Fleming, associate accounting professor with West Virginia University's John Chambers College of Business and Economics. "This is hands-on; this isn't textbook. This is messy. This is live. This is real and very adaptive."
Two Illinois National Guard members joined the team at the Morgantown National Guard Readiness Center to participate in the virtual exercise. The Illinois National Guard and Poland are partners through the State Partnership Program.
"I've never worked with this large of a scenario before, and it was really interesting," said 2nd Lt. Robert Heaser of the Illinois Army National Guard, who appreciated the benefits of incorporating the legal and public affairs teams. "I'm definitely going to take that home, and I look forward to sharing that with my team and emphasizing all those variables at play that I don't think cyber necessarily often thinks about."
The exercise is a working proof of concept of the new partnership between West Virginia University, the West Virginia National Guard, and DISA, forged after meetings in December.
"It was a really, really great experience," said Staff Sgt. Paul Coffy, exercise lead and lead cybersecurity analyst for the WVNG DISA MA-C team. "In the future, what we want to do is create a partnership between the three entities – the West Virginia National Guard, DISA, and WVU – to create training environments to prepare for things like [the exercise]. We want to be able to structure this relationship for the betterment of the state of West Virginia and the advancement of national cybersecurity resiliency."
U.S. Air Force Capt. Stacy Gault contributed to this story.