USMA team places 2nd in Cyber Defense Exercise

Story and photo by Mike Strasser Assistant Editor

April 26th, 2013 | News and Features
Twenty-eight Class of 2013 cadets gather inside the Cyber Lab at Thayer Hall April 16 for the start of the 13th annual Cyber Defense Exercise. These information technology, computer science and electrical engineering majors are tasked with defending a computer network against an opposition force of National Security Agency and Department of Defense personnel. The exercise was established by the NSA in 2001 and has become a friendly competition among service academies. A West Point team has won it six times. This year marked the second consecutive year that the U.S. Air Force Academy team has won.

On any computer, at any home, in any country, the next cyber attack is but a keystroke away. A team of U.S. Military Academy cadets demonstrated its ability to repel such a threat and placed second in the 2013 Cyber Defense Exercise.
Twenty-eight cadets spent the better part of a week entrenched inside the Cyber Lab in Thayer Hall, competing against rival service academies in the National Security Agency-sponsored exercise April 16-18.
As tense as it was awaiting the announcement of the winning team today—the Air Force Academy won for the second consecutive year—it didn’t come close to what happened to the West Point cadets midway through the exercise.

An internal server crashed overnight—for several hours while competitors are not allowed access to their labs and the loss of accumulated points during which proved costly. Lt. Col. David Raymond, the West Point team’s officer-in-charge, said there was nothing they could have done to prevent what he called an unusual turning point in their exercise.
A new Domain Name System (DNS) server had to be built from scratch and the team eventually got all the services and systems back in order.

“That was the level of teamwork that this group displayed throughout this whole exercise. The fact that we were even in the running at the end is still impressive,” Raymond said. “A lot of this is learning on-the-fly; they learn some of it in the classroom—the theory behind most of it and a little hands-on, but most of what they’ve done in the exercise they taught themselves over the last three or four weeks.”
Regardless of the outcome, Raymond commended the team on its performance.
“To be successful in something like this you’ve got to have meticulous planning and preparation and you have to have calm and professional execution. Unfortunately, you also have to have a little luck on your side,” Raymond said. “We didn’t have the luck.”

The CDX, established in 2001, challenges service academy teams to design and build an enterprise network and then defend it against external attacks from an opposition force—or Red Cell—of NSA and Department of Defense personnel. The teams also mitigate intrusions that occur on the system and conduct forensic analysis.
“Each of you put in a really impressive performance this year,” Deborah Plunkett, NSA’s director of the Information Assurance Directorate, said via a conference call. “Our Red Cell team leads have all agreed that you all presented a major challenge to our Red Cell which I think is a major accomplishment.”
Class of 2013 Cadet Nolan Miles, the team captain, returned to the lab this morning with a few of his teammates for a post-exercise cleaning detail. It seemed they were all in agreement that, given the chance, they’d boot the system back up and start the exercise over.
“We wanted to get back at it,” Miles said. “This team had really good communication throughout the exercise and everyone worked well as a team.”

Raymond said beyond the technical expertise the cadets gained from this experience, there was even more opportunities to learn about team-building and leadership. In addition, the network operation center they stood up in the lab will be much like what they will see in the Army.
“From my perspective in this, I got a lot of leadership experience in general and management of a complex system where there were a lot of moving parts,” Miles said.
The team was divided into three sections with the Services team led by Class of 2013 Cadet Ian Garrett; the Network team led by Isaiah Salsman; and System team led by Class of 2013 Cadet Cory Kirk.