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NGB Vice Chief: Cyber Must Be 'Shored Up'

02-21-24 WR NGB Cyber WEBSITE
02-21-24 WR NGB Cyber WEBSITE
Washington Report

The National Guard’s motto is "Always Ready, Always There," and for one group of Maine National Guardsmen, being "there" is a loose term with no specific battlefield or location in mind.

Yet being ready is a constant for the small collection of specialized soldiers and airmen who operate in the infinite area of responsibility known as cyberspace.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, received a firsthand look at how vast the cyber battlefield is during a visit to National Guard cyber facilities in Bangor, Maine, Feb. 1-3. The visit showcased the Maine Guard’s role in cyber readiness, cyber defense and support to civil authorities.

"A lot of people are quite concerned about cyber defense … and they should be," Sasseville said. "From a warfighting perspective, we’re opening new domains —and cyber is an area that needs to be shored up and defended."

As the combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, the Guard has defensive cyber operations elements in every U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia.

The Guard also has advanced cyber units in more than 35 states that stand ready to support combatant commands overseas. These units can be among the first called when a state or locality is attacked on the cyber front. Sometimes, the calls for help come from outside the United States.

In 2022, Montenegro was the victim of a ransomware cyber attack that affected multiple ministries and governmental factions. The result was debilitating for the Balkan nation’s government.

As it turned out, Montenegro had a partner with the capability to quickly assist it — the Maine Guard. Montenegro officials contacted the Maine Guard for assistance shortly after the attack. Within two weeks, 20 cyber defenders from Maine were in Podgorica, Montenegro, to advise, assist and help recover critical governmental systems and processes.

This significant and rapid support — later highlighted in the 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy — was made possible by an established relationship between Maine and Montenegro as part of the Defense Department's State Partnership Program involving the Guard. Montenegro gained its independence from Serbia in June 2006 and became a SPP partner with the Maine Guard less than six months later.

Despite the successful response to the cyber incident in Montenegro, Sasseville used the 2021 ransomware attack on America’s largest fuel pipeline as an example of the need for increased cyber capacity at the state level. According to Sasseville, protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure often equates to defending a lot of capacity atop a "mountain of local and state infrastructure."

"States will be responsible for fending off attacks because that’s where it all sits," he said. "Who are governors going to go to? They’re going to whoever knows cyber."

Sasseville is tracking several lanes to bolster the National Guard’s cyber capacity, including restructuring or aligning functions cyber assets are paired with, how to bridge the cyber talent gap and improving cooperation between states when domestic cyber challenges call for a multistate response.

"It’s no different than using radios for events or high-water vehicles for events," he said. "Cyber has to be treated the same way and we need to develop that capacity."

During his visit to Maine, Sasseville also met with soldiers training for a potential deployment and with company-grade officers from the 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor. He discussed recruiting challenges, artificial intelligence and defending the nation on multiple fronts.

"It’s really significant for all of us, but especially our younger airmen," said Air Force Col. Byron Newell, commander of the 101 ARW. "He’s here because he sees the value of what we do every day to help support not only the state of Maine, but the United States and all of our partnerships around the world."

The visit left an impression on Sasseville too.

"I couldn’t be more proud of watching the Maine Guard grow," he said. "They’re doing fantastic work, and I’m encouraged by every soldier and airman I’ve met."

— By Capt. Jon LaDue, National Guard Bureau