By Maj. Holli Nelson
West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs
Thirty members of the West Virginia National Guard, along with more than 75 other representatives from the various federal and state agencies and the North Carolina National Guard competed on behalf of the United States team in the world’s largest international cyber defense exercise run virtually by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, April 19-21, 2022, in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Locked Shields, a CCDCOE annual exercise since 2010, enables cyber security experts to enhance their skills in defending national IT systems and critical infrastructure under real-time attacks. The focus is on realistic scenarios, cutting-edge technologies and simulating the entire complexity of a massive cyber incident, including strategic decision-making, legal and communication aspects.
This year, there were 24 friendly Blue Teams competing in Locked Shields from various countries throughout the world. The participants took on the role of national cyber rapid reaction teams that are deployed to assist their fictional country in handling a large-scale cyber incident with all its implications. The West Virginia-led U.S. team finished 15th overall.
“There were two major accomplishments during this exercise this year. First, we enhanced the interoperability and relationships of civilian and government cyber defenders and second, we developed the skills of the future cyber workforce that are currently studying at universities,” stated Maj. Bill Keber, U.S. Blue Team lead for Locked Shields 2022.
Exercise participants were graded on how well they protected their networks while following the established rules of engagement for gameplay. Participants from the West Virginia National Guard included West Virginia’s Army Interagency Training and Education Center’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Battalion Mission Assurance specialists, legal specialists, cyber threat analysts, and public affairs experts to receive and resolve various injects of the simulated environment. The North Carolina National Guard provided one Soldier, Staff Sgt. Ben Downing, an expert in the 5G arena, to support Locked Shields 2022. This marked the second year of participation for the WVNG in Locked Shields.
“I was incredibly impressed by the members of my team during the Locked Shields exercise,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ian Frist, a combat medic with the 197th Regional Training Institute. “I had military members as well as students and it was an incredible experience to watch such a diverse group come together in a short amount of time and perform so well during the exercise. I think Locked Shields showcased the unique capabilities the National Guard is able to bring to the cyber battlefront. The National Guard is able to leverage drill status guardsmen soldiers, like me, who work in the civilian cybersecurity industry. Living in both worlds gives me an incredibly unique perspective on cybersecurity operations that I felt was indispensable during the exercise.”
Partnered with the United States’ Blue Team were students from West Virginia University, Marshall University, and West Virginia Tech who are in academic tracks ranging from engineering to cybersecurity, media, and law.
“The partnership and collaboration between higher education and DISA to support the Locked Shields exercise is invaluable,” said Dr. Scott Fleming, Dean of the Business, Humanities, and Social Sciences at WVU Institute of Technology. “Through simulations that require multiple skill sets, we can help improve preparedness from a reactionary to proactive posture, and we can only accomplish this through activities such as this. Through the model of “Prevent, Detect, and Correct,” participating students from West Virginia University, West Virginia University Institute of Technology, and Marshall University can hone their cybersecurity, management, organizational, engineering, public relations, accounting and financial, and crisis management skills. We are honored to participate, and we look forward to continuing and expanding the partnership going forward.”
Additional agency participants included the Defense Information Systems Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Financial Services and Information Sharing and Analysis Center, U.S. Treasury, and Bank of America. In total, Locked Shields 2022 included more than 2,000 participants from 33 nations.
“Our National Guard members and the entire U.S. Locked Shields team stepped up the challenge this year for the exercise. I have no doubt that our service members and agency partners gained invaluable experience in the cyber realm over the last week through the collaboration and expertise in the room,” stated West Virginia Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Bill Crane. “Our West Virginia National Guard members punch well above their weight class when it comes to cyber, and I could not be more proud of what they showcased during Locked Shields.”
Crane continued, “It cannot be understated that there is a critical need for advanced cyber security training and exercises such as Locked Shields. The benefits to our National Guard members, government and industry partners are vital to building resilience and future capabilities for our state and nation.”