The quiet room is a far cry from what most would imagine a military warfare exercise looks like. The only sounds are low voices, the hum of computers and keyboards clacking. Airmen and Soldiers stare intently at their screens, blue glow lighting up their faces as their eyes move over streams of information.
These quiet rooms are where service members from all over the West Coast are training to face one of the most ominous threats on the battlefield — the cyber threat.
From hackings of utility and public entities to the disruption of infrastructure and services before military conflict, cyber and electronic warfare is increasingly the first strike in sowing chaos and disinformation.
“Our aim is to train incident responders in FEMA Region IX so that in the state of California, if there are any cyber security incidents, we can respond,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mikael Magnuson, the cyber network defense chief with the California Military Department.
Service members with the California Military Department participated in Cyber Dawn, an annual regional, multiagency exercise at Okinawa Armory, Sacramento, June 3-17.
National Guard units, like California’s Joint Cyber Team, are increasingly used on a state and federal level to help combat these attacks. Magnuson said training exercises like Cyber Dawn are crucial to developing cyber warfare protocols and best practices.
“It’s not very often that these teams with their units get to really put their skills to the test like this. It also keeps us ready to respond,” said U.S. Marine Cpl. Gabriel Justinich, a cyber warfare operator with the 6th Communications Battalion.
The exercise included members of the California National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, the 195th Wing, CMD’s Joint Task Force Cyber, the Hawaii and Arizona National Guard, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command, U.S. Coast Guard’s 1790 Cyber Protection Team and the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Intelligence Support Squadron.
Service members spent the first week of the training exercise training on individual skills. In the second week, they divided into teams pitted against each other.
Blue team members worked to identify and assess threats to the networks they were assigned to protect. Local and state agencies, including the City of Roseville, California Franchise Tax Board, California Highway Patrol and the town of Truckee, were the network operators.
While the blue team was busy defending, the opposing red team attacked the blue team’s networks.
For those new to the field, the exercise was a difficult but rewarding opportunity to practice their skills.
“As I kept asking questions and bringing it back to my laptop and trying to push it through, it helped me a lot, and it made me want to come back to Cyber Dawn next year,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ranessa Spencer, a cyber systems operator journeyman with the 222nd Information Support Squadron, 195th Wing.
These exercises aim to share best practices among the branches and state and federal agencies and establish relationships because all the attendees are part of FEMA Region IX and may be working together if a cyber incident threatens the region.
“We’re able to not only trade the best tools and practices but also in case of a large-scale cyber incident response, it’s likely that we would see some of these same characters,” said Magnuson. “It’s nice to just know who people are so we have connections and we have relationships built already.”