National Guard cyber units protect country’s interests, still face training issues

National Guard cyber teams are helping with police networks, elections and national missions.

The Defense Department is continuing to put more resources into building cyber units that will defend the nation’s networks and attack networks abroad. The National Guard is picking up some of that responsibility as units protect their individual states and work on the broader national and international mission.

Some National Guard cyber units are protecting and fortifying state-level interests. Others are part of the 133 national cyber mission teams that protect DoD networks, assist in overseas operations and harden federal infrastructure from cyber attacks.

The demand for these services is high and as more cyber units are needed, the National Guard is still struggling to keep its training pipeline moving.

“The cyber threat is becoming more real because there are more actors that are trying to enter into the domain,” Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Burkett, vice director of domestic operations for the National Guard Bureau said Thursday during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon. “This is something that is ubiquitous that we are going to have to deal with as a nation. We are dependent upon our infrastructure for critical systems to support our way of life and as long as we are dependent upon those systems we are going to have to defend them.”

Col. Jori Robinson, vice commander of the 175th wing of the Maryland Air National Guard, said her unit spent some of its time protecting police cyber grids.

“It was reactive. The Maryland State Police kind of felt like something was going on in their networks,” Robinson said. “We worked with the state police to do a vulnerability assessment. We wrote up a report for them and told them, ‘This is what you can do; this is what we’re seeing; this is how you fix X, Y and Z.’”

Robinson said the relationship is a working one, where the Maryland State Police can come to the National Guard when they have questions or concerns about their networks.

“Other relationships we’ve had are with our critical infrastructure,” Robinson said. “They are the front line of defense for their own entities. But if they require assistance, they know how to get a hold of us.”

In addition to vulnerability assessments, Robinson said her unit also provides mission assurance for state government agencies. The Maryland National Guard came in for assessments for the 2018 elections.

“We provided a lot of lead-up information, a lot of assistance, a lot of policy review,” Robinson said. The Guard was also available for monitoring and assistance.

Every state’s Guard is different, some only work on assessments, while others are more “hand-on-keyboard, in the network” type work, Robinson said.

In West Virginia, the Guard is partnered with the state’s Information Technology Council.

Lt. Col. Jody Ogle, director of communications and cyber programs for the West Virginia National Guard, said that state’s team also supported the elections.

“We did it a little bit different than Maryland,” Ogle said. “We did some hand-on-keyboard work, but we did it in a passive monitoring way. We were only monitoring the network traffic. We did not do anything to change the security posture of the networks. We embedded our soldiers and airmen in the state security operations center to augment an understaffed, under-resourced entity.”

The Guard also supports the national mission. The cyber mission teams, which are under the purview of U.S. Cyber Command, are tasked with protecting DoD networks, assisting in overseas operations and protecting national infrastructure.

Three of those teams owned by the Air Force are staffed by the Guard.

“Of those three National Guard teams, Maryland supports two of them,” Robinson said. “We support a cyber protection team with five other states.”

That team is specifically in charge of defending Air Force Networks.

Maryland also adds to a cyber national mission team in conjunction with Delaware.

“From our side, it’s not only the domestic mission and what we are doing to support the critical infrastructure of our state and support our state’s needs, we also have a federal mission that we must do,” Robinson said.

The cyber demand

Working both of those missions means the teams are in demand. Robinson said in a two-year period, Maryland was deployed for a year and half.

“We are very, very busy on the [federal] side because we help make up part of those teams,” Robinson said. “With our cyber national mission team we are almost in a constant rotation. We are getting ready to mobilize 85 of our mobile operators between the two teams just this year alone after coming off mobilizing 55 in 2018 and 35 in 2017. It’s just getting bigger and bigger.”

The National Guard currently has 3,880 cyber service members in 59 cyber units in 38 states, but that number is scheduled to grow.

Burkett said by 2022 the cyber units should be fully staffed.

But, training is still slow. Robinson said because the cyber training backlog is so bad in the National Guard, most of the people who work in cyber in her unit come from an existing cyber background. A majority work for tech companies or other federal government entities in their civilian careers. That may workable for units in Maryland, but it’s not as easy for states that don’t have high concentrations of people with high-end cyber skills.

The training issue isn’t a new one. Former National Guard Chief Gen. Frank Grass warned about the training backlog in 2016.

In 2017, the Air National Guard started a rapid cyber training course to fill cyber positions.

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