Nebraska National Guard participates in major cyber exercise

Story by: Spc. Lisa Crawford
Posted: 5/3/2017
Cyber Shield 17
Members of the Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and U.S. Army Reserve, as well as civilians who work in law-enforcement, intelligence and information technologies, participate in the ISA CS34/CS37 62443 Cybersecurity Design Specialist/Maintenance Specialist course as part of Cyber Shield 17 at Camp Williams, Utah, April 28, 2017. Cyber Shield 17 is the sixth iteration of this training exercise and this year unites the Army National Guard with members of the Air National Guard, Army Reserve, and civilians from private companies, state government agencies, federal agencies, industry partners, and academia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Michael Giles)

Eighteen members of the Nebraska National Guard – including 14 Army and four Air Force – joined more than 800 other participants at Camp Williams, Utah, for Exercise Cyber Shield 17, the National Guard’s premier cyber defense training event, April 23 – May 5, 2017.

The exercise includes members of the National Guard from 44 states, the U.S. Army Reserve, state and federal government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private industry. It is designed to assess participants’ ability to respond to cyber incidents.

“This is a great opportunity for our teams,” said Maj. Alex Zeller, Nebraska National Guard Cyber Plans Officer. “Nebraska is currently setting up a Defense Cyberspace Operations – Element and a Cyber Protection Team, so this training provides a lot of insight for Guardsmen moving into those teams.”

By working closely with interagency partners and the private sector, the National Guard seeks to strengthen network cybersecurity and the capability to support local responses to cyber incidents. Cyber Shield 17 is part of the National Guard’s ongoing effort to improve Guard ability to respond to real-world cyber incidents. This is the sixth iteration of this training exercise.

Nebraska participants came from the state’s Joint Force Headquarters, the 234th Signal Company, 209th Regiment (Regional Training Institute) and the 155th Air Refueling Wing. The exercise is divided into two phases: the first week offers participants the opportunity to hone their skills through academic instruction covering everything from the legal aspects of cyber operations to the nature of cyber threats to hands-on technical training. Equally important, the Soldiers and Airmen are learning their roles as part of the larger cyberspace defense community.

Exercise participants emphasized that the threat cyber attacks pose makes this challenging training crucial.

“Cyber threats are real,” said Capt. Joshua Hull, Nebraska National Guard Joint Force Headquarters. “They are already all around us and they affect every aspect of our daily interactions.”

During the first phase of the exercise, participants belong to one of several cells. Red Cell members play the role of adversary hackers. Members of the Blue Cell, such as Hull, attempt to defend against the Red Cell’s attacks. Members of the Gold Cell support the Blue Cell with coaching and mentorship, while White Cell members evaluate the Blue Cell’s performance.

Hull said he is confident his team will be able to succeed in warding off the Red Cell attacks thanks to effective collaboration he has observed among his comrades.

“We have very good team cohesion,” Hull said. “We have a very good flow of information and we’ve pulled our best and brightest. They have a good understanding of how network operations work.”

During the second phase of Cyber Shield, exercise participants from cyber protection teams and face off against trained antagonists, who simulate online adversaries. The teams try to defend their networks and mitigate the effects of attacks in a free-wheeling clash of cyberspace acumen.

“The Soldiers and Airmen are working with tools, systems and networks they’ll be using in the future,” Zeller said. “This exercise prepares us for when we do partner with local civilian organizations in an event regarding an issue of cyber security. We’ll be able to provide them with better support and expertise in the field.”

The National Guard’s dual state-federal character makes it uniquely positioned to help civilian agencies and critical nongovernmental entities, such as public utilities, if an incident occurs. Because of their status as a state military force when not under federal mobilization orders, Guard units are available to respond to state-level emergencies at their governor’s discretion.

“As a governor would call up the National Guard…for a state disaster, such as a hurricane, it’s no different for a cyber event,” said Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Henry Capello, the exercise commander.

Moreover, the National Guard’s long-standing connections with state and local governments and private industry, combined with its familiarity with the cyberspace environment in which these organizations operate, make it an ideal partner.

“Being a Citizen-Soldier, and being able to work in the communities in which I live, is a little bit different. It means a lot more to me and I’m able to help them because I understand their problems better,” Capello said.

The Nebraska Army National Guard is currently seeking applications from highly qualified personnel interested in an opportunity to perform duties in traditional technology positions in the Defense Cyberspace Operations - Element and the Cyber Protection Team. All interested personnel need to apply for consideration no later than May 12 in order to fulfil unit manning and mission requirements. For questions regarding these positions, contact Zeller at 402-309-8348 or

(This article is a collaboration by Lt. Col. Wayde Minami of the Maryland Air National Guard, Sgt. Michael Giles of the 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, and Spc. Lisa Crawford of the Nebraska National Guard.)