If Douglas MacArthur or Ulysses S. Grant went to the U.S. Military Academy today, they might test their defensive skills hunched in front of a computer screen.
Teams of caffeine-fueled cadets from five U.S. military academies spent long days in computer labs last week trying to fend off threats cooked up by experts at the National Security Agency (NSA). In the end, the West Point team won the annual Cyber Defense Exercise, beating out the Air Force, Naval, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine academies in creating the best computer networks to withstand the four-day barrage.
The 14-year-old exercise lacks the lore of Army-Navy football, but not the intensity. Not only does the exercise practice the military’s broader strategy of staying ahead of the curve in cyberoperations, but the cadets also relish the chance to test their computer skills against their peers.
“This is the Army-Navy game for our electrical engineering and computer science departments. … This is our chance to beat the other service academies,” said Cadet Jason DeCoursey of Little Rock, Ark.
DeCoursey was one of about 30 senior cadets crammed in a windowless computer lab at the academy last week. The exercise is essentially a high-tech game of capture the flag: The NSA team attempts to capture “tokens” embedded in the academies’ networks. The academy that does the best job fending off the cyberattacks wins.
By the midpoint of the three-day exercise, Air Force, the team that won last year, was barely ahead. Army defenses held up after a nerve-wracking breach the day before. Cadet Hayden Tippett, of Tempe, Ariz., said he spent 23 of his 24 waking hours earlier that week in the computer room. He slept in a nearby room one night using his boots as a pillow.
“We don’t have big backpacks on. We’re not walking through the woods. We’re sitting behind computers. But it is stressful,” said Cadet John Zeidler of Milwaukee.
Some of the cadets want to specialize in cyberoperations after they become Army officers next month. West Point, a 212-year-old institution, is gearing up its new Army Cyber Institute, which aims to become a national resource for research, advice, and education in cyberdefense and operations.
The director of the institute, Col. Gregory Conti, is a 1989 West Point graduate who recalls that as a young lieutenant during the first Gulf War he would stick little pieces of acetate with enemy unit symbols to a battle map with double-stick tape.
“It is changing the nature of warfare, and we’re trying figure out how to come to grips with that,” he said.