MIDDLE RIVER — Members of the Maryland Air and Army National Guard just wrapped up a week-long ‘cyber blitz’ training exercise at the 175th Wing in Middle River. It went a little something like this:

Buckfast, a foreign country of ambiguous origin, has been hit with a cyber attack, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pull out all the stops, prove your cyber chops and save the day.

Actually, it depended which team you were on. Four teams — white, red, black and blue — each had a different part in the roleplay. Red Team mimicked an adversary, while White Team played the ‘local defenders,’ feeding intel to Blue Team, which was the Cyber Protection Team.

And if you’re thinking of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack which shut down a major fuel artery along the east coast earlier this month, you’re not the only one.

Captain John Matlock, 175th Wing Cyber Effects Officer and team leader in the training, said that the training in many ways mimicked the Colonial Pipeline attack. He explained that they often take inspiration from real-world events.

“Each one is a little different,” Matlock said. “It makes our training more exciting.”

Maj. Charles Gruver oversaw the cyber blitz, which he explained was the sixth iteration of a cyber operations training exercise. This one was unique, he noted, because it brought together members of both the Air and Army National Guard for the first time.

“It was really good — a lot of smart people in the room who understand different aspects of computers and networks,” he said. “Any time you get a bunch of guys like that together, they come up with great ideas.”

The idea to bring Army and Air members together for the training grew from the Maryland Military Department’s Joint Cyber Task Force, which during the pandemic evaluated over 400 state government IP addresses and websites looking for vulnerabilities. The task force brought together folks from different branches and with different resources, Gruver said, and was a chance to start thinking bigger about the state’s cyber capabilities.

Gruver said international cyber operations have grown in significance in recent years, noting that he’d even seen instances of cyber operators going out on missions alongside special operations operators.

“That was definitely a first, and something I’d never seen in my entire career,” he said. “We’re adjusting to what’s going on in the world.”

Chief Dennis Skelton, Chief Warrant Officer Class 2 of the 169th Cyber Protection Team of the Maryland Army National Guard and another team leader in the cyber blitz, said that the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack shows that cyber crimes can have very real consequences in a world increasingly reliant on cyber infrastructure.

“The military has to evolve, just like society,” Skelton said. “Physical combat, what we call kinetic warfare — shifting away from that saves lives.”

There was no physical combat involved in the cyber blitz, aside from some jovial stare-downs over lunch. Teams worked in separate rooms, bouncing back and forth between screens, huddling together to debrief every now and then — in some ways, classic movie hacker stuff.

There was no rigid scheme, Matlock explained — operatives worked together to figure out how to accomplish their mission with the tools and know-how on hand.

“It was a series,” he said. “Each outcome spurred the next course of action.”

They had to impose some boundaries, Skelton noted, for the sake of realism.

“We could have just shut the system down, but in a civilian organization, you can’t just shut down,” he said. “Each scenario, each partner, each network is different, and each requires a different approach.”

Both Matlock and Skelton commended the members who participated in the cyber blitz training for the diverse skills they brought to the exercise, and both noted that they are always looking to recruit and train the next generation of cyber operatives. Gruver also noted that the cyber industry is up-and-coming.

“It’s something that will continue to expand over the years, so now is a good time,” Gruver said. “And the Maryland National Guard is a good place to hone those skills.”

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