Pop culture pictures hackers in clean, air-conditioned rooms, working global network magic from a desk. For the Army, though, that’s not enough. If American troops are to prevail against inventive foes in high-tech, close-quarters fights, the hacker elite have to get their boots muddy with the regular grunts. So now the Army’s sending cyber soldiers to its Combat Training Center wargames to figure out how.
“There’s this idea that we could always do it remotely, from protected space. Well, we recognized, no, that’s not true,” Lt. Gen. Ed Cardon, head of Army Cyber Command, told reporters recently. For cyber soldiers to support frontline units effectively, he said, “you’re going to have to have some number — small, but some number — of them forward.”
Putting cyber soldiers in the trenches isn’t simple. To start with, they have to be physically fit and qualified on a range of weapons — not exactly the stereotypical computer geek. They need computer and communications gear light and rugged enough to take into the field, and vehicles to carry it. They also need to communicate clearly with combat arms soldiers, a cultural chasm one general compared to understanding “dolphin speak.”
To work out all the myriad implications for training, tactics, manning, and equipment, the Army has begun embedding cyber teams in combat brigades conducting wargames (“rotations”) at the CTCs, considered the pinnacle of realistic field training. “We’re actually doing this now for every rotation,” said Cardon.
Most of the teams so far have been defensive cyber operators, trained to protect a brigade’s network against hostile hackers. But on two occasions, they’ve been contingents from the elite 780th Military Intelligence Brigade, the service’s offensive cyber unit. The brigade’s based at Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters of NSA and Cyber Command, which focus on strategic cyber, but it has sent tactical teams to join light infantry and Ranger units in exercises.
In the wargames, the four-person detachments from the 780th were able to monitor and even block “enemy” communications, including over social media, said the brigade’s commander, Col. William Hartman. Speaking at the same Association of the US Army conference as Cardon, Hartman was cagey with details, but he did divulge that the Offensive Cyberspace Operations (OCO) teams not only stopped the opposing force from “obtain[ing] certain content,” they were in some cases able to prevent (simulated) “lethal” attacks.”
The teams learned plenty of painful but necessary lessons, too. “We needed better cyber kit,” said Hartman. Selling cyber to a muddy-boots ground commander is hard enough, he said, and it’s even more difficult to get his buy-in “when you need to get four people to lift your kit and put it in back of a Humvee.” To compound the problem, no one initially gave the cyber team their own Humvee, so they had to beg and borrow one.