These special Army cyber teams are hacking ISIS comms

Soldiers in new cyber teams are now bringing offensive and defensive virtual effects against Islamic militants in northern Iraq and Syria, according to senior leaders.

An embedded expeditionary cyber team performs surveillance and reconnaissance of various local networks during the Cyberspace Electromagnetic Activities support to Corps and Below pilot at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., Aug. 10, 2016. Cyber senior leaders recently announced that cyber Soldiers are now employing offensive and defensive cyber effects against Islamic militants in northern Iraq and Syria. (Photo Credit: David Vergun)

“We have Army Soldiers who are in the fight and they are engaged (with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant),” said Brig. Gen. J.P. McGee, the Army Cyber Command’s deputy commander for operations.

Once the cyber mission force teams stand up, McGee said they’re going straight into operational use.

“As we build these teams, we are … putting them right into the fight in contact in cyberspace,” he said at a media roundtable last week.

The general declined to discuss specific details, but said the majority of the effort is offensive cyberspace effects that are being delivered from locations in the United States and downrange.

The Army is responsible for creating 41 of the 133 teams in the Defense Department’s cyber mission force. Of the Army’s teams, 11 are currently at initial operating capability with the rest at full operational capability, according to Brig. Gen. Patricia Frost, director of cyber for the Army’s G-3/5/7.

She expects all of the Army teams to be ready to go before the October 2018 deadline, she said.

The teams have three main missions: protect networks, particularly the DOD Information Network; defend the U.S. and its national interests against cyberattacks; and give cyber support to military operations and contingency plans.

This spring, Army cyber also plans to continue the Cyberspace Electromagnetic Activities support to Corps and Below pilot, which is testing the concept of expeditionary CEMA cells within training brigades.

The 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team is slated to take part in the pilot’s sixth iteration, being held at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California.

In the training, Soldiers discover how to map out cyber and EM terrain in a simulated battlefield in order to defeat the enemy.

“Where are the wireless points, cell phone towers? What does that look like? How do you figure out how to gain access to them to be able to deliver effects?” McGee asked.

In one example, McGee said that a CEMA cell could be used to shut down an enemy’s internet access for a period of time to help a patrol safely pass through a contested area. The internet access could then be turned back on to collect information on enemy activities.

“We’re innovating and trying to figure this out,” he said.

McGee also envisions cyber Soldiers working alongside a battlefield commander inside a tactical operations center, similar to how field artillery or aviation planners give input.

“A maneuver commander can look at a team on his staff that can advise him on how to deliver cyber and electromagnetic effects and activities in support of his maneuver plan,” he said.

Until then, the Army has created a cyber first line of defense program, which trains two-person teams to actively defend the tactical networks of brigades, Frost said. Each team consists of a warrant officer and NCO who are not specifically in the cyber career field, but who can still help brigades operate semi-autonomously in combat.

“[We] look at putting two individuals that will come with cyber education and tools to be that first line of defense,” Frost said. “It allows a brigade commander to be able to execute mission command.”

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