AUGUST 23, 2016, MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. – The Corps’ ability to win on the battlefield remains strong; however, its post-9/11 enemies in operational environments like in Iraq and Afghanistan have been, by and large, a technologically inferior force. And while the Corps may need to only refine its maneuver warfare skills, there is a new battle space that is sure to dominate the next major armed conflict: cyberspace.
As the U.S. has drawn down its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s force in readiness is preparing for the next big fight. Technical, tactical, and technological superiority is never given – it is earned through tough, realistic training.
Marines and sailors with I Marine Expeditionary Force conducted I MEF Large Scale Exercise 2016 across several locations in Southern California, Aug. 10 – 22, in part, to hone its cyber defense capabilities.
The overall purpose of the exercise was to practice the deployment of a fighting force of more than 50,000 military personnel to a partner nation and incorporate both live-fire and simulated combat scenarios against a near-peer enemy force.
“What we are working on in the joint force across the national-defense establishment is finding our way into this new domain of warfare that we call the cyber domain,” said Maj. Gen. David Coffman, deputy commanding general, I MEF. “The ones and zeroes in the computers can go around the world, up into space, et cetera, this is a problem we are attacking in this exercise.”
Coffman added that one area the force focused on was the defense of its forward computer networks. Because the exercise included establishing a forward-operating base for the command element, security doesn’t stop at the area’s entry control point.
“The scenario gives us the opportunity to exercise against a force with advanced cyber capabilities,” said Capt. Curtis Miller, cyber network operations planner, I MEF. “What that means to me is we have to stand up a defensive posture to enable the operators to fight through and accomplish the objective.”
Miller explained that what makes an advanced cyber capability is less the kind of attacks that can be leveraged against us but how those attacks occur. Once they get into the network, their ability to maintain a persistent presence makes it difficult to detect and respond to their attacks.
As I MEF began to return to conducting force-level training exercises against near-peer adversaries, it has remained proactive in identifying and improving its cyber capabilities.
I MEF also reached out to other military services to achieve its training objectives.
“Our mission is to assist the Marines in conducting defensive cyber operations and identifying any gaps in conducting defensive cyber operations,” said Chief Petty Officer Marco Fernandez, cryptologic technician for networks, 553 Cyber Protection Team, a team of cyber defense specialists with Fleet Cyber Command, 10th Fleet. 553-CPT attached to I MEF to act as advisors while setting up the command element’s networks.
Fernandez said attacks can be expected from various adversaries and a multitude of attack vectors an opponent can use including phishing scams and specialized malicious software. He said the ultimate goal of most adversaries is to footprint an organization and figure out its capabilities.
With the assistance of 553-CPT, the Marines of I MEF were able to codify new and improved techniques, tactics and procedures, keeping classified and unclassified computer systems secure.
“To me, it comes down to planning,” Miller said. “We have to develop a (defensive cyber operations) plan that takes all things into consideration in how to prevent, how to protect and how to respond to a cyberattack. Being able to train our guys and have the tools and understand where we can leverage recourses to win that type of fight and gain that information advantage is what every commander should be able to have in his tool kit.”
The training benefited the Marines of I MEF and helped strengthen the U.S. military as a whole.
“I think it’s a win-win for the Corps as a service, as well as (U.S. Cyber Command) because you have a multi-service team working jointly to reach a goal,” Fernandez said. “So I think we are in a great position to shape the future of defensive cyber operations.”