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NEWS | Feb. 5, 2022

Range Allows National Guard and State Partners to Battle Safely in Cyberspace

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois – During drill weekends, Illinois National Guard Soldiers and Airmen often go to the range for training. A typical day at the range might include training in tasks from physical fitness, to land navigation, to weapons qualification.

This year a new range, the Illinois National Guard’s Joint Cyber Range, will offer service members and their civilian partners an exciting training tool in the cyber domain.

The Illinois Air National Guard’s 183rd Air Wing, based in Springfield, hosts the cyber range. Physically, the range consists of approximately 10 servers, networking equipment, computer terminals, and other information technology infrastructure that can be configured to create a variety of training scenarios. An official ribbon-cutting and tour of the range is being planned for March.  

The Joint Cyber Range will bring challenging, but safe, training to the Illinois National Guard’s cyber service members and their Illinois partners.

“The National Guard has taken an increasingly important role in responding to cyber attacks and conducting cyber defense both in state missions and within our national missions,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard. “The Illinois National Guard Joint Cyber Range allows us and our partners to practice our cyber skills together much in the same way we might be required to respond to a real-world cyber event.”

“It‌ ‌can‌ ‌be‌ ‌used‌ ‌for‌ ‌a‌ ‌wide‌ ‌range‌ ‌of‌ ‌training‌ ‌and‌ ‌exercise‌ ‌applications,” said 1st Lt. Paul Murley, the officer leading the cyber range project. “We‌ ‌are‌ ‌building‌ ‌toward‌ ‌a‌ ‌primary‌ ‌cyber‌ ‌exercise‌ ‌scenario‌, ‌but‌ ‌because‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌flexibility‌ ‌the‌ ‌virtual‌ ‌environment‌ ‌provides,‌ ‌it‌ ‌is‌ ‌also‌ ‌an‌ ‌effective‌ ‌tool‌ ‌for‌ ‌training‌ ‌system‌ administrators‌ ‌and‌ ‌network‌ ‌admins.‌”

According to Lt. Murley, a typical training scenario consists of two teams taking opposing sides across the network. One side attempts to disrupt the network, while the other side works to secure it and correct vulnerabilities. The cyber range allows these battles to take place in real time on a network separated from the outside world. 

“Having the dedicated hardware allows us to take advantage of training opportunities as they arise,” said Master Sgt. Chris Ward of the 183rd Wing’s Air Communications Flight and a senior leader on the Illinois National Guard’s Joint Cyber Task Force. Previously the cyber warriors would have to schedule the unit-owned information technology hardware in advance because it was typically occupied for other missions. Having the dedicated range makes it a lot easier to fill white space in the training schedule with challenging and productive cyber training, Master Sgt. Ward said.

Master Sgt. Ward, who is the head of global security operations for a Chicago-based corporation, said that having the dedicated platform also makes it easier to train with other state agencies, military services, corporate or utility partners or potentially international partners. “You do not have to deal with some of the constraints you’d have working with DOD networks,” he said. “Having a closed, safe platform allows you to take the kid gloves off and really go at it.”

Master Sgt. Ward said he is hoping to host training on the Joint Cyber Range with the Illinois National Guard’s State Partnership Program allies in the Polish military. “I had the opportunity to go to Poland and train with them in the Polish military’s Cyber Warfare Center and they have skilled cyber warriors. We would love to explore more opportunities to learn from each other.”

‌Already cybersecurity courses exist for Soldiers and Airmen to build their skills, but Lt. Murley said there is no substitute for real-time training with an active adversary.

“First and most important is that it provides a venue for Soldiers and Airmen to try, fail, and learn in the world of cybersecurity without negative externalities,” said Lt. Murley. “Flight simulators are essential for pilot training, and similarly here, we are able to put operators into the cyber ‘cockpit’ without risking damage to real-world networks.”

The physical aspect of the range is an important additional tool for training. Virtual training inside of the cyber “cockpit” is important.  Lt. Murley said the ability to walk up to a server and troubleshoot problems cannot be overlooked. The full access provided by the range is an exciting tool in the Illinois National Guard’s cyber tool belt.

“As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. Our cyber warriors become better by competing against each other and with increased opportunities to work with other cyber professionals. The Joint Cyber Range allows them to hone their skills against each other in a safe environment,” said Maj. Gen. Neely, a national leader in the area of cyber security and critical infrastructure.

The Department of Defense has safe cyber ranges, such as U.S. Cyber Command’s Joint Cyber Training Environment (JCTE)/Persistent Cyber Training Environment (PCTE), but the Illinois National Guard range will allow for more frequent training opportunities with local partners and agencies, said Col. Shawn Strahle, the Illinois National Guard’s Chief Information Officer and Deputy Chief of Staff for Information Management. “It is these increased opportunities with Illinois partners that makes the Illinois National Guard’s Joint Cyber Range exciting in addition to increased opportunities to train during weekend training assemblies. Most of our drill-status Airmen and Soldiers in the military cybersecurity/information technology career field also work in these areas in their civilian careers. The Joint Cyber Range allows them to bring their cutting-edge technology skills to their military training, and increases cybersecurity education opportunities.”

The Illinois National Guard also participates in, and fills key staff positions in national cyber defense exercises such as Cyber Shield, which uses Cyber Command’s JCTE/PCTE, Maj. Gen. Neely said. Cyber Shield, with more than 800 participants, is the Department of Defense’s largest unclassified cyber defense exercise. Participating in these large cyber exercises with cyber experts from across the nation is invaluable, but so is working with cyber experts within Illinois, Maj. Gen. Neely said.  

The Joint Cyber Range will also give the Illinois National Guard cyber warriors more exposure to cyber defenders outside of the military.

“I can also see it being used as a recruiting tool to attract more cyber talent into the Illinois National Guard as well as expose our cyber warriors to more opportunities in their civilian lives,” Maj. Gen. Neely said.

Master Sgt. Ward agreed. “In the Joint Cyber Task Force we have folks with great civilian-acquired skills regardless of the duty assignment they hold in the Army or Air Force. We have junior enlisted with extensive cyber experience who are just too busy in their civilian lives to go through the commissioning process and outstanding leadership that recognizes these talents.”

Having the Joint Cyber Range where they can really put their skills to the test is a great retention and recruiting tool, Master Sgt. Ward said.

Across the country, organizations, both public and private, work to ensure the security of our interconnected systems. The Illinois National Guard’s Soldiers and Airmen must keep up to date with the latest techniques and tactics used in both government and civilian systems. The new range provides the environment for these skills to develop in the men and women serving here in Illinois.