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Army Training In California Desert To Take On Cyber Threats

Soldier with Army Cyber Command prepares to launch a drone, May 4, 2017.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Soldier with Army Cyber Command prepares to launch a drone, May 4, 2017.

Army Training In California Desert To Take On Cyber Threats


Steve Walsh, military reporter, KPBS


US Army Cyber Command wants to know if it can insert experts onto the battlefield to help troops on the front line combat cyber threats.

In the remote Southern California desert, the US Army is testing whether it can put some its most advanced cyber tools into the hands of commanders in the field. The pilot project started in August and will wrap up in the next few weeks at Fort Irwin.

Cyber warfare — the use of computer technology to disrupt the enemy's activities — is often conducted in air conditioned buildings far from the battle lines. Since last year, the US Army Cyber Command has been sending small teams to work with brigades as they train at Fort Irwin and a few other locations.

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The National Training Center, roughly 200 miles northeast of San Diego, is the size of Rhode Island. It is the only Army site large enough to hold live fire exercises for an entire brigade of 5,000 soldiers.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Brig. Gen. JP McGee, is US Army Cyber Command deputy commander for operations, May 4, 2017.

Capt. George Puryear is with Blackhorse, the 11th Armored Calvary Unit, which acts as the opposition force to train the brigades who train at Fort Irwin.

Trainers want the troops to come away with two basic lessons: these are the sort of threats Army Cyber Command can detect; and this is what a potential enemy, like Russia or China, might be able to do in the field.

But commanders are busy. Puryear said they will balk if you load them down with too much technical information.

“Hey, the amount of mental bandwidth I have to commit to this, just isn’t worth it,” he said.

Trainers are tight lipped about their methods. But they will reveal some tactics: during the last couple of training cycles, a cyber team lured a part of a brigade’s leadership into an ambush. Another team blunted a tank assault by jamming the radios.

Standing on top of a wind-blown ridge overlooking one of the mock villages, Brig. Gen. JP McGee, Army Cyber Command deputy commander for Operations, described how part of his small force helped with the battle over one of the villages.

“What you can’t see is the cyber capabilities going inside the networks," he said. "They’ve been able to take over devices inside that city and exploit them”

The next day, Fort Irwin’s Commanding Gen. Jeff Broadwater made an impressive entrance on another ridge, by Blackhawk helicopter. He said concentrating on things like cyber warfare is still relatively new for the army. The US spent more than a decade fighting desert wars against opponents who did not have any of these advanced weapons. Until 2013, the national training center at Fort Irwin was mainly readying units to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fort Irwin has since renamed its mock villages to downplay Arabic, instead substituting names that sound eastern European. The focus now is how would the Army fight a near peer competitor, like Russia or China.

Cyber command started the pilot program by sending a few advisers. By May, they were inserting small teams to work directly with the field commander — alerting him to potential threats. In the case of the trainers, they worked with them to attack the brigade operating in the battlefield, or what they call “the box.”

Army Cyber Command is trying to flesh out its mission. The Army recently published the first major update to the field manual for cyber and electronic warfare. It created a new cyber classification for its soldiers. After the pilot project wraps up, later this month, the army will have to assess how much of this technology it wants to move with troops on the front line.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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