Thirty-three West Virginia National Guardsmen, Defense Information Systems Agency employees, Illinois National Guardsmen, 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 the week of April 12-16th.
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.
There were 22 friendly defense Blue Teams competing in Locked Shields to defend a fictional country. The Blue Team that the West Virginia National Guard – Defense Information Systems Agency Mission Assurance – Cyber members were a part of was a joint team led by Poland, and included additional National Guard members supporting the event both in the exercise and real-world capacities.
Maj. William Keber, the West Virginia National Guard’s Army Interagency and Training Education Center Critical Infrastructure Protection Battalion commander, said it was both an honor and a privilege to work collectively with the United States European Command, DISA, Illinois National Guard, WVU, and especially the cyber warrior partners in Poland’s National Cyber Security Centre. “The exercise was challenging and very well organized. 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,” Keber said.
The West Virginia National Guard’s AITEC CIP BN provided 17 soldiers to this effort in various roles, 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.
Exercise participants were graded on how well they protected their networks while following the established rules of engagement for gameplay. Additional participants of the West Virginia National Guard included legal specialists, cyber threat analysts, and public affairs experts to receive and resolve various injects of the simulated environment.
“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 various courses of study ranging from engineering to cybersecurity, media, and law. What these students brought to the competition, in addition to knowledge from their corresponding courses of study, was experience and lessons learned from participation in past cyber exercises.
“You just simply can’t get that [experience] in the classroom,” said Dr. 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.”
Additionally, two Illinois National Guardsmen joined the team at the Morgantown National Guard Readiness Center to participate in the exercise. The Illinois National Guard is partnered through the State Partnership Program with Poland.
“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, adding how beneficial it was to incorporate 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.”
This exercise is a working proof of concept of the newly formed partnership between West Virginia University, the West Virginia National Guard, and DISA, forged after meetings between senior leaders of all three entities in December, 2020.
“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.”