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Guard Team Wins Cyber Competition for 3rd Consecutive Year

10-11-23 WR Cyber WEBSITE
10-11-23 WR Cyber WEBSITE
Washington Report

A National Guard team has received the 2022 SANS NetWars Department of Defense Services Cup from Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, marking the third consecutive year the Guard team has won the cybersecurity competition.

"For the third year in a row, the Guard beat teams from other branches in this cyber problem-solving competition," Hokanson said during a Sept. 22 ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. "These soldiers and airmen embody the best of the Guard: experts in their civilian jobs who use their skills to serve their states and nation."

The two-day competition, first held in 2016, features a "cyber range" network where five-person teams are scored on their response to a variety of complex cyber incidents and attacks.

"Each year, the scenario undergoes variation with a definitive objective of comprehensively analyzing a cyber incident," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Gibbs, a cybersecurity analyst with the North Carolina Army National Guard and the team’s executive officer.

"The complexity of the scenario is incrementally structured, ensuring that participants cannot skip specific segments and still achieve competition completion," he continued. "So, this [requires] knowledge in all areas that are presented."

Gibbs’ team’s experiences helped refine its approach.

"We often start strong because our past victories have honed our strategy," he said, adding that each member brings different skill sets that allow the team to "truly shine."

"This allows for effective collaboration," Gibbs added. "We know whom to consult when a challenge or discrepancy arises.

"Recognizing that [individually] we don’t have all the answers, but knowing exactly who to turn to and which resources to consult ensures we progress swiftly."

Tech. Sgt. Aaron Rosenmund of the Delaware Air National Guard served as the team's captain. Besides Gibbs, the group also included Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher Ravis with the Ohio Army National Guard, Tech. Sgt. Brandon DeVault with the Florida Air National Guard and Spc. Nick McKinney with the California Army National Guard.

Though the team's members came from across the country and represented both branches of the Guard, they all worked or trained together previously.

"Over the past three years, while some team members were newcomers to the competition, they were not strangers to the group," Gibbs said, adding that the Guard’s annual Cyber Shield training exercise also builds team skills, cohesion and experience.

"We’re lucky that most of our cyber units gather in the Guard for Cyber Shield," he stated. "Our team and other attending units discussed recent cybersecurity incidents during this event and its planning stages.

"We break down how these incidents happen, ways to defend against them and even how to recreate them."

These experiences have allowed the Guard team's members to stay current on cyber threats and tactics.

"We’ve gained extensive expertise by continually updating our knowledge and delving deep into specific cyberattacks, especially those involving ransomware," Gibbs said. "This knowledge equips us well for the diverse challenges the competition presents."

The competition also helps to foster the group's cohesion.

"While our primary aim at the competition is to win, it also offers a beautiful opportunity for bonding and spending quality time together," Gibbs noted. "This established camaraderie enables us to operate efficiently, understand each other’s strengths and quickly adjust as the competition demands."

Participating in the competition and the others like it builds additional cyber skills and readiness.

"They expose competitors to recent advancements or uncommon aspects in their field that they may not encounter in their daily roles," Gibbs said. "This exposure not only kindles interest in various areas but also enhances understanding, leading to the discovery of new approaches in areas previously believed to be thoroughly understood."

Maintaining high cyber readiness is critical as equipment is modernized and systems are developed for the future force.

"As technology and automation evolve daily, they introduce new risks and challenges," Gibbs said.

Gibbs and his team are preparing for the December 2023 Services Cup competition in Washington, much like they did last year.

"We dedicated several days to preparation before the competition," he said. "This preparation included analyzing recent cyber events, examining past competitions and strategizing for possible scenarios.

"Additionally, we refreshed our knowledge to account for any skills that evolved over the years," Gibbs concluded.

Gibbs expects this year’s competition to be as challenging as previous years.

"Every year it’s a close score, at times a one- to two-question difference [between team rankings]," he said. "So every year, we are competing to the very last second."

— By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, National Guard Bureau