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Camp Pendleton Marines’ Cyber Games victory comes with important lesson

Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base sign outside the main gate of the base. (UT File Photo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Staff Sgt. Keith Wolf and his team of nine Marines from Camp Pendleton surrounded a large conference table with five computers.

At each computer, Marines crunched formulas, solved mathematical equations and poured over code, racing to complete their mission: Figure out why a fictional company lost sensitive material to a rogue WiFi device that breached its computer systems.

The fictional stakes were high, but so the real world stakes – preparation for future warfighting, as well as winning this year’s Cyber Games held at the Naval Air Warfare Center.

Cyber warfare is a growing threat the Marine Corps, as well as America’s other service branches, are preparing to defend against, officials said. The first Cyber Games were held in 2020.

Malware attacks can be particularly damaging to national security. It was a cyber attack on Department of Defense computers in 2008, compromising critical data, that sparked the creation of the United States Cyber Command.

Just a month ago, the Marine Corps published a doctrine on the importance of controlling information as it relates to global security, which is interconnected with military advantage where information can be used to fool, disrupt, distract and destroy.

Gen. David Berger, the Marines’ commandant, published in 2020 his vision for the Corps, called the 2030 Force Design. The plan forecasts challenges posed by other countries and “competitors” and how the Marines need to adapt to meet the challenges. Included, is the importance of Marines becoming more lethal by discarding heavy equipment and working in smaller, quicker and more flexible teams.

Berger recently updated his vision document, including to specify the importance of leveraging cyber information and translating that into warfighting.

In March, the Marines opened a new job opportunity for specialized training in space, electromagnetic spectrum operations, or energy warfare, and cyber warfare.

For Wolf, information and cyber warfare fit hand-in-hand, and it’s a discipline that harnesses an interest he’s been passionate about for most of his life.

“My dad was always into the next new thing in computers,” he said, recalling how he worked with his father, a Navy veteran, starting with computers that used floppy disks to transfer information. “He always wanted me to assist him. I could understand physically what made the computers operate, but I was intrigued by the internals. What makes them talk to each other? That was a fairly new thing then.”

A decade into his Marine career, he’s a cyber warfare operator, but that’s not where he started. He began his service in telephone systems and computer repair.

Over the years, he watched the cyber warfare program grow.

“I felt like that was the next level for me,” he said of choosing to extend his five-year contract to take advantage of the new opportunities he saw opening in the Marine Corps to evolve his career.

Though he chose to stay a Marine, Wolf said he and his team use the civilian world as training for what could happen in their own sphere.

“When we first learn what’s important in cyber security, we have to go on what the professionals in the industry say,” he said. “We take that as the jumping-off point. How do we defend the Marine Corps’ network? If any big company has a huge threat and we know we use something similar, we must build on that.”

“Because it’s such a new thing the Marine Corps does, the main importance of it is us projecting what our capabilities are in cyber,” he added. “And, also what are the adversaries’ capabilities?”

As more and more electronic devices are networked globally, the attack surfaces get bigger, Wolf said.

“Now we have to learn the potential of someone hacking those.”

Crowded around the conference room table, his team of Marines worked through the attack scenario, identifying the tools used, extrapolating what information had been taken and tracking the attack to what region it was launched from. With each answer, a green flag lit up – a modern game played in that ages-old capture the flag format.

“As soon as you see the green light go up on the flag and you get the correct answer, you usually see people’s energy change,” Wolf said. “Everything you’ve been practicing up to this point justifies all the work you did when you get the right answer.”

Along with being good training, winning the Cyber Games for the 9th Communication Battalion was about bragging rights, Wolf said.

“You’ve got the crown, and you know you are the best Defensive Cyber Unit, and you’ll hold that crown for a year.”


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