I MEF Cyber Team Wins USMC "Capture the Flag" Cyber Games 2022
by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dana Beesley
July 10, 2022
On April 8, 2022, after four days and thirteen hours of putting their defensive cyber operations (DCO) capabilities to the test, I Marine Expeditionary Force’s DCO-Internal Defensive Measures (IDM) emerged victorious from the Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I), Marine Corps “Capture the Flag” Cyber Games 2022.
June 29, 2022 - Several members of I Marine Expeditionary Force’s DCO-Internal Defensive Measures (IDM) team at 9th Communication Battalion on Camp Pendleton, California were Staff Sgt. Keith Wolf, Sgt. Robert Gerbec, Cpl. Ian Bergman, Lance Cpl. Thomas Feuerborn, Cpl. Charles Grubbs, and Lance Cpl. Sunjeev Shaik. These Marines along with fellow MEF’s DCO-IDM team members (Sgt. Menkarahet Gamble, Cpl. Austin Boyd, Lance Cpl. Noah Brandstetter, and Lance Cpl. Benjamin Patten) won the Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I), Marine Corps “Capture the Flag” Cyber Games 2022. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Marine Corps photos by Cpl. Austin Fraley.)
This fourth iteration of the Marine Corps Cyber Games, hosted at the Naval Air Warfare Center via the National Cyber Range in Orlando, Florida; was the first to force teams to focus on defensive cyber skills rather than offensive cyber skills. Here, teams earned points by capturing cyber flags, in a simulated contested environment, which ranged in difficulty from Apprentice, Journeyman and Master.
For Cpl. Ian Bergman, a cyberspace warfare operator with I MEF’s DCO-IDM winning team, the uniqueness of this year’s event challenged him and his fellow Marines to try new methods of analyzing data to reach a common goal.
“Although cyber analysts have similar jobs, everyone gets tasked either as a pair, a team, or individually to try and solve these puzzles and capture these flags,” said Bergman. “We utilized the skills that certain Marines are better at to chase down flags. While every analyst had a job to capture their individual flag, we all needed to be willing to offer a hand where we could fit in in order to win.”
The team agreed that constructive communication and fluidity between all ranks involved is unique in the cyber community and paramount to its success. Lance Cpl. Thomas Feuerborn observed that many solutions to scenarios would not be solved without the ability to learn from each other.
“The Marine Corps is heavily based on leadership, where if someone makes a mistake, a lot of people will end up covering down to fix that mistake,” Feuerborn said. “Any one person in cyber can be the key to unlocking a specific problem. A lot of it has been instilled from the bottom up; teaching your Marines to be better than you are.”
Bridging the gap between talent management and problem solving in a simulated environment was a new challenge for the Marines to overcome. Staff Sgt. Keith Wolf, the team leader for DCO-IDM, credited the team’s success with understanding whom to employ where in various scenarios throughout the competition.
“You have to use talent management to know where to start; who’s good at what and being able to look at questions from every different angle,” said Wolf. “There’s a set number of total flags, which get unlocked as you progress. Most of the time, you have to solve one question to even know how to get to the next question to answer. The way that you could lose points was by being locked out of a question by answering it wrong too many times.”
Feuerborn said the experience of this year’s competition brought a new level of camaraderie and cohesion to the team, a cohesion which enabled them to score almost 400 more points than last year’s winning team.
“Going through these cyber-attacks, you're constantly troubleshooting and problem solving and trying to figure out what's going on,” said Feuerborn. “There’s not one way to answer any given question, but there are more effective or efficient ways to get to the answers. It's all about honing that skill with your team or partner going about it with redundancy.”
Finding the “missing piece” of a cyber threat directly correlates to that of a typical math equation, according to Bergman. DCO is categorized as passive and active defense operations to defend Department and Defense and other friendly cyber spaces. Offensive cyber operations are categorized as operations intended to project power by the application of force through cyberspace.
“Let's say if you're writing out an equation and trying to solve for x, and you forget an algorithm that you needed, I would remind you to ‘Carry that 2,’” Bergman said. “In cyber, it's ‘You forgot to click on this.’ If I have a piece of information that [my teammate] is missing, he’ll be able to open it up or pull out everything that was noise; otherwise you might just be continuously digging and chasing the flag.”
Because of competitions like the Marine Corps Cyber Games, team analyst Sgt. Robert Gerbec said he and the other members of the team found that they were more equipped for real-life scenarios they may have in the future.
“Exercises like this help us hone our eye for the sort of obscure situations we may face,” said Gerbec. “You're not always going to know where the adversary is going to be, what kind of systems they're going to use, how they're going to get into your network, or what their ultimate end goal is. [During the Cyber Games] we had a write up of what the scenario was, so we had kind of a baseline of what our adversaries’ suspected eventual goal is, so we knew to check these certain things.”
The other four teams which competed were from Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Group, III MEF, 8th Communications battalion and Marine Forces Special Operations Command. Each team consisted of six to ten marines.
Members of I MEF’s DCO-IDM team were Staff Sgt. Keith Wolf, Sgt. Robert Gerbec, Sgt. Menkarahet Gamble, Cpl. Austin Boyd, Cpl. Ian Bergman, Lance Cpl. Noah Brandstetter, Lance Cpl. Thomas Feuerborn, Cpl. Charles Grubbs, Lance Cpl. Benjamin Patten, and Lance Cpl. Sunjeev Shaik.
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