Some of today’s most threatening enemies don’t carry guns. They don’t ambush en masse on horseback from a mountain ridge, or wear ski masks and dress all in black carrying bags of loot. Nothing about their outward appearance or behavior says, “Be afraid.” Yet, they can pull down an entire city’s power grid, shut down water treatment facilities, cut off food supply and potentially kill vulnerable people in hospitals, schools and nursing homes – all with a sophisticated computer and a few specialized software tools. They are cyber terrorists. And they exist today in every city and every nation. The only way to protect ourselves is to learn how they do it.
At the Mar. 25, 2014 cyber range ribbon cutting at the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Governor Rick Snyder complimented the Michigan National Guard’s proactivity by saying, “Michigan is a leader in the cyber-protection field, and I’m proud of our efforts. Let’s not be on the defensive end of attack but instead prepare and protect each other by embracing everyone’s cyber talents before a crisis occurs. Let’s hit the gas on this program and take the lead on our state and nation’s network security.”
Echoing the governor’s sentiment, Dr. Joe Adams, Merit Network’s Vice President of Research and Cyber Security, reinforced the importance of readiness and training in order to minimize impact when cyberattacks strike. Merit Network, Inc., is a non-profit, member-owned organization that was formed in 1966 to design and implement secure computer networks between public universities in Michigan. Today, after almost 50 years of innovation and expansion, Merit connects nearly 4,000 miles of network infrastructure to hundreds of clients across the country preparing programmers and network administrators to do battle with our nation’s most dangerous enemy.
The Michigan National Guard is also a member-owned organization of sorts given that most Soldiers and Airmen have full-time civilian jobs as teachers, plumbers, fire-fighters, administrators and other careers. They are military members, typically, one weekend a month and for two weeks during the year. And they’ve also experienced many years of innovation and expansion. Once, being a strictly support force to their active duty counterparts, they are now trained on the same equipment in the same situations, and deploy with, active Army and Air Force units in nearly the same numbers. But again, their role is changing. As mobilizations to Iraq and Afghanistan taper off and there is less demand for heavy equipment and aircraft, visionary Guard leaders look to adapt troop skill sets to meet future needs and shape their organization’s relevancy. This is where cyber intelligence becomes critical.
Many Guard members already are computer savvy network operators and programmers. It only makes sense to capitalize on these existing skills. Hence the creation of Guard cyberunits which, not surprisingly, have been around almost as long as the Merit Network but are only now taking center stage as the future of the National Guard. The unique feature of Guard cyberunits, and the squadron at the 110th Communication Flight in Battle Creek in particular, is their ability to reach community businesses, state departments, universities, financial offices, all operating in unclassified environments.
Before 2011, military cyber units trained and operated solely under the guidance of National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command in highly classified platforms. This training environment skewed the military cyber talent pool almost exclusively toward national security issues. By expanding training operations to include unclassified, virtual civilian networks like the “Alphaville” city-scenario created by Merit, the MING smartly positioned themselves to train with civilian critical infrastructure partners in real-world cyber crisis situations.
At Battle Creek, a first-of-its-kind unclassified cyber training hub on a military installation, cyber students have the best of both worlds because classified operations centers are also nearby broadening their skill-building opportunities even further. Training at the hub pairs extensive cybersecurity resources that meet NSA and National Institute of Standards and Technology criteria, with hands-on training opportunities to enhance Michigan’s protection of computer systems and sensitive data.
The Michigan National Guard partnership with Merit will continue to grow with new cyber hubs planned for Fort Custer and Camp Grayling in the coming months and Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center later this year. “Within months the Michigan National Guard will have more unclassified cyber training capacity and unique capabilities than any other state in the nation,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Stone, Michigan’s Assistant Adjutant General for Installations. “We know that Michigan will not compete in the top secret domain of NSA and USCYBERCOM; but we deliberately set out on a course to work with interagency partners and critical infrastructure partners who would not have access to our nation’s top secret training resources. Michigan already leads the way in several other types of training facilities, now our cyber opportunities compound those capabilities ten-fold and better protect U.S. citizens at the same time, you can’t get a better win-win combination than that.”
Stone predicts that areas including homeland security, infrastructure defense, criminal justice, law enforcement, academic programs related to communications technology and private sector business commerce will all benefit from MING cyber training opportunities. Michigan National Guard cyber training sites will be part of the Michigan Cyber Range, announced by Governor Snyder in 2012 as a partnership between the state of Michigan, Merit Network, federal and local governments, colleges and universities, and the private sector all working together to protect Michigan computer systems and sensitive data.
Story and photos by Angie Simpson, Michigan National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters Public Affairs