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The Wisconsin Army National Guard will partner with the Illinois Army National Guard to stand up a new cyber protection team, Gov. Scott Walker announced Dec. 11.

The National Guard announced the activation of seven new cyber protection teams nationwide. They join four previously announced teams. The goal, according to the National Guard, is to position cyber units in each of the 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency response regions.

The new Wisconsin-Illinois unit will consist of nearly 40 Soldiers split into five teams with different roles and skillsets as well as a command team.

Wisconsin and Illinois will split the cyber protection team’s assets. Each state’s team assignments are yet to be determined. One of the five teams will be a mission protection team that partners with existing computer network defense teams and other government agencies, academic institutions and industry partners, while providing comprehensive risk mitigation for military cyber infrastructure. Other teams include a cyber threat emulation team that will specialize in simulating the latest in cyber adversary techniques, a cyber support team aimed at providing technical support during exercises, inspection forces and a threat discovery and counter-cyber team.

A National Guard cyber protection team is a great resource and represents an opportunity for Wisconsin and the Midwest to effectively collaborate on cyber defense,” Gov. Walker said. “Our National Guard already has existing relationships with local governments and private industries, and this team will be a critical asset in sharing resources and defending our cyber infrastructure.”

The National Guard expects the unit to work collaboratively with academia as well as the public and private sector for training and knowledge-sharing. The cyber protection team could also play a role in the event of a crippling cyber attack in the state or region.

According to Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general and the governor’s homeland security advisor, the National Guard is uniquely equipped to fulfill the nation’s cyber protection team mission compared to other components of the military.

“One of the greatest strengths of our National Guard is its ability to pair the knowledge, skills and experience our Soldiers have gained in the civilian world with the robust training they receive in the military,” he said. “I expect we will draw on the strengths and experiences already present in our force as we build this capability.”

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Alston, the chief of the Wisconsin National Guard’s joint information technology directorate, agreed.

“I believe this is an extension of what makes the Guard strong, and that’s our civilian skills and experiences,” he said. “Cyber in particular entails a lot of very advanced technological training that needs to be practiced and experienced to be effective. So we bring that to the cyber fight.”

Alston recalled serving with a Soldier who was an IT consultant for Microsoft at one point. Those are the sorts of Soldiers the cyber protection team will recruit, he said. His hope is that the team can work collaboratively with partners in industry, academia and with other government agencies to share knowledge, experience and lessons learned.

The stakes are high, Alston said. With each passing week, another report of hacktivism, data breaches, cyber crime, or identity theft surfaces. There are military applications as well, especially as the nation’s adversaries grow increasingly sophisticated with their cyber capabilities by the day. Cyber threats from foreign militaries or terrorist organizations could jeopardize critical infrastructure or the systems on which the military relies to execute its missions.

“(Information Technology) is everywhere in our lives,” Alston said. “We’re dependent on it, and threats are pervasive.”

Dunbar saw the establishment of a cyber defense team as the first step in synchronizing the state’s efforts to defend against the persistent cyber threat.

“Cyber defense hinges on good cyber hygiene, close partnerships with academic institutions, local governments and the private sector,” Dunbar added. “Synchronizing those efforts regionally will play a key role in increasing our overall cyber security.”

The Wisconsin National Guard plays a key role in the state’s overall cyber defense strategy. The organization already maintains a Computer Network Defense Team, which collaborates with other cyber security professionals across industries, and the Guard plays a pivotal role in Wisconsin’s recently released Cyber Disruption Response Strategy, which lays out a framework for identifying attacks, protecting systems, detecting threats, and responding and recovering from cyber disruptions. The formation of a cyber protection team means the National Guard will play an even greater role in protecting the state’s cyber infrastructure.

The National Guard announced plans to activate 13 additional cyber units spread across 23 states by the end of 2019 in addition to the seven teams announced Dec. 9. The effort is part of a broader Department of Defense effort to increase the military’s cyber defense assets.