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Members of the Wisconsin National Guard’s Defense Cyber Operations Element and the Cyber Protection Team participated in the nation’s premier unclassified cyber training exercise, Cyber Shield 2023, June 1-15 at the Army National Guard’s Professional Education Center, Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Ark. Large exercises like this help cyber defenders develop the skills to protect critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks. Submitted photo

Nearly 20 cyber and computer security specialists from the Wisconsin National Guard rehearsed and prepared for the challenges of cyber warfare at Cyber Shield 2023 June 1-15 at the Army National Guard’s Professional Education Center, Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

This year, Wisconsin’s delegation included representatives from the Army National Guard, Navy Reserve and Cyber Response Team members.

Cyber Shield, the Department of Defense’s largest unclassified cyber defense training exercise, helps develop, train and prepare cyber security forces around the country to defend and protect critical cyber infrastructure such as industry, utilities, schools, health care, food suppliers and military networks. Cyber security experts from 36 states and representatives from five State Partnership Program partner nations — Poland (Illinois), Kosovo (Iowa), Armenia (Kansas) and Moldova (North Carolina) — attended this year’s exercise.

Exercises like Cyber Shield are vital to defending the critical infrastructure of Wisconsin, from local school districts to municipal water treatment plants to the power grid, because it creates an opportunity for Wisconsin’s cyber response team to develop skills that serve the entire state.

“The Wisconsin National Guard is on the front line of cyber defense because our team has the knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to play a critical role in the defense of our nation’s cyber combat and vital infrastructure,” said Maj. Jamison Clark, Defensive Cyberspace Operations Element (DCOE) deputy director. “Cyber threats evolve daily, so Cyber Shield creates an immersive opportunity for our experts to stay current on emerging threats, technologies, and best practices so we are prepared to understand, anticipate and prevent attacks on our infrastructure.”

The pandemic amplified cybercrime activity as businesses and organizations of all sizes transitioned to a remote workforce, with many failing to properly protect their infrastructure and data. As a result, cyberattacks increased by 38 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to Check Point Research. In addition, the costs associated with data breaches for a business with fewer than 500 employees now average $2.98 million, according to research by IBM and the Ponemon Institute.

Joining representatives from the Wisconsin National Guard at Cyber Shield 2023 were more than 800 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, civilian experts and other military services from throughout the nation, along with interagency partners from all levels of government and cyber leaders ranging from high-tech corporations to local utilities.

In the first week of Cyber Shield, attendees participated in a series of instructional classes and hands-on exercises that developed and refined skills needed to identify, assess and correct network vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks. The training, labs and seminars available during the first week introduced participants to available resources and tools to combat cyber terrorism.

For example, a team member who manages cybersecurity for a rural Wisconsin school district attended a course focused on industrial control systems (ICS). Armed with new knowledge, this attendee can now assess the risk in the district’s network and develop appropriate risk management plans to protect the district’s infrastructure and control systems.

“During the first week, Cyber Shield emphasized the development of skills for all levels of cyber security experience, from beginner to seasoned cyber professionals,” said Cyber Shield attendee Emily A. Ferries, a systems administration manager and information protection technician. “We earned certifications from many of these courses, which are often required for our roles. Other courses helped set teams up for success during exercise week with skills they can share with their teams back home.”

For the second half of training, participants worked in teams of 10-12 cyber experts to apply the knowledge learned in the first week and identify, contain, and mitigate a simulated network threat to return systems to pre-incident conditions as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible. This year’s scenario simulated a cyber-attack against the U.S. railroad system.

“Cyber Shield is one of the few times where our Defensive Cyber Operations Elements (DCOE) team can train together and collaborate in a simulated environment that is similar to what we might face if called upon for an incident response mission,” Ferries observed. “It was great to work with my colleagues from around the country under pressure to identify solutions and potential gaps in our training and resources.”

The training service members receive at Cyber Shield is vital to the ongoing effort to protect the nation’s infrastructure and resources. Attacks on critical infrastructures occur daily in the military and civilian cyber domains. Cybercrime will cost companies worldwide an estimated $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, up from $3 trillion in 2015, as reported by Cybersecurity Ventures.