by William Roche
U.S. Army Cyber Command
July 19, 2018
FORT GORDON, Ga. -- There's nothing like a bit of friendly competition to build skills and strengthen teams, as the Army Cyber Protection Brigade's "Cyber Stakes" thoroughly proves.
Cyber Stakes is a two-fold biannual training exercise here wrapped in a collegial challenge -- collaboration with a bit of competition, with the aim of improving the brigade's overall skills, teamwork, unit cohesion and readiness.
One component of the event is an opportunity for CPB Soldiers and civilian employees to train on core technical skills, share knowledge, and demonstrate individual and team aptitude. Another component provides CPB Soldiers with training and assessment in key Army Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills.
Starting in April and into early May 2018, about 300 brigade members and multinational officers studying at the Army Cyber Center of Excellence are taking part in the training during one of three consecutive weeklong sessions, each split between those core cyber and Soldier skills.
For the first portion of each stakes week, CPB Soldiers and employees focus on cyber core tasks in a simulated operational environment that requires them to access systems, navigate network infrastructure and execute command line tools required for cyberspace operations. Participants are challenged in skills such as intelligence, network monitoring, incident response, registry usage, enumeration, security products, filtering, auditing and more.
The rest of the week is time for CPB Soldiers to be Soldiers. After a day of training on Army warrior tasks, Soldiers head to a land navigation course for a day of assessment, using map and compass to find testing locations where they must demonstrate what they've learned. The skills tested represent a wide array of basic Soldier knowledge and ability, from evaluating a casualty and requesting medical evacuation, to responding to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks, to individual weapons maintenance, to field communication.
Col. Ben Ring, the CPB's operations officer, said Cyber Stakes has become the brigade's premier training event.
"We look at Cyber Stakes as our core training initiative for both essential cyber tasks and essential warrior tasks," he said. "We look at it as, 'These are the basic set of tasks that everyone should have,' and we combined the cyber tasks and the Army warrior tasks within one week."
"Each individual that will go through (the training sessions) will have a specific area of expertise in one of those, say it's networking or host analysis, but we give them a gamut of all the other tasks so they can understand and appreciate and be able to perform basic level skills for each of the other tasks."
Maj. Harley Rodriguez, the lead organizer for the event, said Cyber Stakes has three objectives: to help CPB members retain basic skills; to train and collaborate on areas the brigade is using in current operations; and to build unit esprit de corps. While the event isn't truly a competition, participants' scores will be tallied after the final week, and top performers will be recognized.
It's a challenge putting the twice-yearly event together given the brigade's high operational tempo, Ring said. But it's worth it, both for the direct value of the training provided, and because the months of preparation needed to make Cyber Stakes happen is an invaluable lesson in itself, teaching the unit's junior leaders how to organize, coordinate and present information in a training environment.
Cyber Stakes is built from the bottom up, Rodriguez explained, using CPB members' knowledge and experience of cyber operations at the tactical level to ensure the brigade is cross-trained on skills they actually use. The training is presented at its most basic level, he added, to ensure that everyone, regardless of job title, function or leadership level, gets training or refresher in the foundations of cyber operations.
The core technical skills that are trained and tested are vital to every cyber professional, said Bobby Pierre, deputy team leader for the CPB's 201 Cyber Protection Team, and Cyber Stakes gives everyone a chance to share, reinforce and refresh those skills.
"A big part of doing tasks I'm required to do involves scripting, whether it's C+, Powershell -- a lot of automated tasks. So like most things, those skills are perishable. So if you don't have the time to go back and practice them on your own, this (Cyber Stakes) kind of forces you to do it and reminds you."
"And the basics won't change, so a specific version of Powershell may change and have some new functionality, but the basic scripting and how Powershell works won't change."
"What you don't get from the instructor in that classroom setting, you get from your peers," he added. "All of our teams might not necessarily be doing the same thing -- we're definitely not doing things the same way -- and those experiences and sharing opportunities are important as well. There are a million different ways to build better mousetrap."
The classes and collaboration provide a different perspective on cyber operations, said Shatavis Andrews, deputy team lead for 153 CPT. She said learning new skill sets allows her unit to review and update its tactics, techniques and procedures and standard operating procedures, and to explore or acquire new tools that will make the team better prepared for current and potential future missions.
She used the ICS/SCADA training as an example.
"My team's primary focus is not ICS/SCADA, so it allows them a quick overview of what ICS/SCADA is, how it is incorporated into the IT realm, and how it would affect us as a team in the event we were tasked to go on that type of mission," she said.
The same dynamic is true for the warrior tasks side of Cyber Stakes. Several participants said they don't often get to use the Soldier skills they're learning and practicing, but must be prepared for any mission in the future.
Many CPB Soldiers transferred from other Army career fields in which they spent more time performing warrior tasks, and share those skills with their CPB colleagues. One of those is Sgt. Jean-Erick Voigt, a cyber operations sergeant who reclassified after years of serving as an Army medic.
As a medic, he says, he often spent time on field exercises doing Soldier tasks, but that's not something cyber Soldiers do routinely. So events such as Cyber Stakes are important to provide a baseline and reinforcement in both cyber and warrior skills.
"It kind of grounds us in Army tasks, because a lot of times we're focusing on cyber things. We're in the office and we kind of move away from what 'big Army' does," Voigt said. "It's nice because it kind of links us back to our roots.”
While Soldiers such as Voigt have some background in Soldier skills, Ring said the unit normally doesn't spend a large percentage of its time on missions requiring those skills. And, he added, the percentage of CPB members who join the Army specifically to be cyber Soldiers is growing, so events like Cyber Stakes are vital to provide them with warrior skill sets.
“Everyone that puts on the uniform and who wears U.S. Army on their chest should be able to conduct some of the basic warrior tasks," Ring said. "And we want to make sure those Soldiers, no matter which environment, no matter where they go, can execute and perform those tasks. We look at the cyber profession as a combination of those basic warrior tasks and what we are as cyber professionals. We are not just a bunch of nerds on a keyboard; we're a bunch of nerds on keyboards who can also do the Army thing."
"So what we do is ensure that these junior Soldiers and officers get the training they deserve as members of the Army profession."
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