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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.
Matthew Bowler
Soldier with Army Cyber Command prepares to launch a drone, May 4, 2017.
Army Training In California Desert To Take On Cyber Threats
Army Training In California Desert To Take On Cyber Threats GUEST: Steve Walsh, military reporter, KPBS

In the remote Southern California desert the U.S. Army is testing whether I can put some of its most advanced cyber tools into the hands of commanders in the field. KPBS military reporter Steve Walsh but a couple of days at Fort Irwin to look at how the Army is preparing for cyber warfare. Reporter: The captain went to the map to show has a dash how tranny -- they attacked through the central corridor. Black course are the bad guys. It is their job to do everything they can to throw everything at the unit at the national training Center. They want to be as realistic as possible to show what they facing combat. Being able to demonstrate the effects. That includes cyber attacks and electronic warfare. The U.S. Army cyber command has sent small teams to the California desert to help units learn how to defend themselves. As those tanks came through, we had a jammer and these tanks as they pushed into that engagement area how to stop, dismount. Echo they force the commanders out of their tanks to talk things over. While his Black course regimen rain down similar dash simulated fire. -- simulated fire. The U.S. often conducts cyber warfare from your conditions dash -- air-conditioned buildings far from [ INDISCERNIBLE ] they have already learned not to way down busy commanders with a bunch of tech talk or they will tell you The amount of mental bandwidth I have to commit is not worth it. Instead show them what these things can do. A lot of this is under wraps. Amen -- [ INDISCERNIBLE ] was able to convince officers that the command wanted to meet them at a particular spot. Part of the unit leadership went to that location, and they were actually attacked by the [ INDISCERNIBLE ] Reporter: But when I pressed her for how she set this up the public affairs person stepped in. The ways in which we do it are part of the effects. The commander Brigadier General knows how to make an entrance, arriving by Blackhawk overlooking one of the training villages. Concentrating on cyber warfare is relatively new. The U.S. spent more than a decade fighting desert wars against opponents who did not use these weapons until 2013 the national training center mainly ready the unit to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. The next place you go to fight, we don't know where that will be. But we also know the enemy that we face will have developed some lessons they have learned as we have been executing and interact a Overlooking another village, the Brigadier General illustrates the challenges of trying to explain this type of warfare. What you can't see right now but it's also working is we have cyber activities that are going on inside the networks that exist within that city where they have been able to come in from a distance and then take over devices. He served in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan it took over as the operations Commander for Army cyber command last year. He says these programs are valuable. Every iteration gets better. We have change the construction of the teams, the size and composition, the equipment that we bring out. Once the exercises over at the end of the month, Army cyber command which just published their first major update of the Army Field manual for cyber and electronic warfare, will have to decide whether this is the way they will fight with teams of experts moving with troops along the front lines. Steve had a lot more to say about his time with the Army cyber command at Fort Irwin. So he spoke with the KPBS Metro reporter as part of a new podcast series called San Diego stories deep dive. Here is part of that. You talk about somebody's wargames like simulated tank battles and simulated mortar fire. What is actually happening there? There is a series of cities at a been around for a long time, like the last dozen years or so. They were mostly set up to train people to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. So they look very much like those cities. You have actual tanks. They approached the city and try to take them over. Simulated laser fire to show whether or not you have said someone dash hit someone -- hit someone. They have actors there and they have the smells like bread baking in the bakery and even the sent of death as well. Incredibly realistic. Do the teams have objectives? The way they describe it is, you have two countries, one is attacking the other, in the U.S. forces in their to protect its ally in the region. Imagine NATO and one of our smaller partners, they changed all the names of these towns. They used to have Arabic sounding names and now they have Eastern European sounding names. So the idea is, this regiment that gets in here as opposed to get in there and then defend this territory with its ally. Describe the cyber warfare actually taking place? A battalion is trying to disrupt the radio signals? There is a range of different things they can do. Essentially, this is U.S. Army cyber command. They are trying to see whether or not they can actually push some of these ideas down to the unit level. A lot of cyber warfare is dumb with computers. People in air-conditioned rooms with pizza on the counter. Dealing with a lot of these big threats. And how much of the stuff can actually take input with a commander and send with them in the field. So you have a wide range of threats. Older stuff where you can jam people's radar signals. There are a lot of stories about things that happen in the Ukraine where they were zeroing in on cell phone networks for the opposition. They were using and then targeting them with missiles. There tried to do a lot of those things. Simulate those ideas as well as an Internet set up. They have versions of Twitter and eBay and Facebook. There are people there monitoring those networks pretty good tell a certain amount of what is going on. A group gets in there and attack a region. They take a very small part of the battlefield, but then they post everything on their version of YouTube showing they have raised their flag and these commanders are now being alerted. You probably want to not ignore that because everyone in this town sees this on their version of the Internet. So they think that you guys are losing to these guys. So you might want to handle that threat. So they're throwing all these sort of real-world threats at them. We heard about the secrecy involved. There was a great moment were a public relations official stopped the conversation. What is it like to negotiate what you can and cannot report on? I have actually been embedded in an actual war in Iraq. A couple of different times as a print reporter. And embedded is a very unique situation. I have come to believe that each one of us are embedded in our own experience. I found when I was in Iraq that that was a very terrible place to figure out what was going on with the larger war. I actually knew very little. I remember I was at an airport in Baghdad were all the soldiers were telling me that Ronald Reagan had died they were all convinced of this happened. And he was not dead. All sorts of rumors flying around. So you can't dash -- you have a hard time finding the bigger picture but always know what is happening around you and always know what people tell you. So you use every morsel you get, every anecdote to try to build a store and get a sense and not overrun your information. That is a key part. So you're not say more than you really do know. You're not assuming that everything behind the curtain is running perfectly and smoothly. You have any idea what kinds of things they were kind dash -- try to keep you from hearing and seeing? No. But there were a whole bunch of techniques. This is one of the big questions coming out of this. The way they had the set up, they had the black horse guys. The bad guys. These were the guys that were actually the trainers. Their job is to just throw everything they can. Do anything that might happen to these guys and catch them offguard so they can learn from that experience and be trained to fight. But then the battalion that was in the box, they had to follow the rules. And among the things they did is they didn't have them do offensive things. So the real question is, all these very secret things and stuff they take you aside to tell you we cannot say anything more about, how many of those things will they ever be able to deploy with the rules of engagement? How many of those things will the U.S. actually deployed in the field? Did they start disseminating false information on the Internet somewhere? Knowing that that could literally fake news around the world. They have to work out some of these things. What will they actually do with this stuff now that they have learned how to use it?

Army Training In California Desert To Take On Cyber Threats
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.

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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.

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

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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”

Army Training In California Desert To Take On Cyber Threats

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.

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