Cadets participate in inaugural NSA Cyber Exercise

By Lt. Col. William Clay Moody and Lt. Col. Joshua Bundt Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Army Cyber Institute

April 5th, 2018 | News, News and Features
 Class of 2018 Cadets Preston Pritchard, Mason Adam and Connor Eckert design an exploit to launch against a Naval Academy team’s webserver during the National Security Agency Cyber Exercise live fire during the inaugural NSA Cyber Exercise March 19-21 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.     Photos by Class of 2020 Cadet Robert Norwood
 Class of 2018 Cadets Seth Cannon and Gabe Glazer attempt to analyze network traffic, while attempting to locate a high value target in the “Blue Edge: Concord Dawn” module of the inaugural NSA Cyber Exercise March 19-21 at Annapolis, Md.

The inaugural National Security Agency Cyber Exercise (NCX) held from March 19-21 at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, challenged 31 cadets from four academic departments in a myriad of competitions across near full-spectrum cyberspace operations. Multiple teams from the U.S. Military, Naval, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies competed in four modules covering cyber policy, operational planning and mission execution.
The Naval Academy won the overall competition, while the West Point teams brought home gold in the Red-versus-Blue Table Top module and bronze in the Blue Edge: Concord Dawn module.
After 17 years of the NSA Cyber Defense Exercise, faculty from the military academies and United States Cyber Command joined the NSA in developing and executing a wholly redesigned competition.
In the old model of the CDX, each academy team defended the attacks of the NSA’s Red team during a weeklong home-station exercise. Now, cadets and midshipmen attack each other while simultaneously fending off their opponents.
Additional changes included each school fielding multiple teams in this new Olympiad style event and everyone traveling to one physical location to compete head-to-head. In the redesigned exercise, an overall winner is determined by taking the top finish from each school in the four equally-weighted modules.  West Point’s top results were a fourth place finish in policy, first place in Red-versus-Blue, third place in Concord Dawn, and sixth place in the live fire.
The first day of the NCX featured two half-day modules, a Cyber Policy and Red-versus-Blue Table Top exercise. West Point fielded three teams of four cadets each to compete in each of these modules.
The policy modules tasked teams to examine the trade-offs between securing, protecting and defending our nation’s critical infrastructure while best deploying the cyber resources of our active duty and reserve forces.
The Red-versus-Blue engagement allowed cadets to plan, execute and evaluate cyber mission strategies from the perspective of both the attacker and defender of a network that would be typically found at a military installation.
The next day teams competed in a cyber operational planning and execution module named “Blue Edge: Concord Dawn” where cyber assets were used to aid in a high value target (HVT) capture/kill mission of a fictional scenario.
Keying in on the unique characteristics of the HVT communications traffic, students attempted to discover “the geolocation,” which is the cell phone of the target in order to relay the position to an unmanned aerial team for a missile strike.
Simultaneously, teams secured their satellite communications platforms while denying the adversary use of their SATCOM to ensure mission success.
In the culminating challenge, teams from each service academy went head-to-head in an attack-defend style capture the flag event called the NCX Live Fire.
Teams were tasked with defending various systems including email, web hosting and file servers while exploiting those same services on their competitors.
Playing the role of a Cyber Mission team on a hostile network, teams collected intelligence through the answering of multiple challenges that would lead them to discover vulnerabilities in the systems and services.
Once the vulnerabilities were discovered, teams could correct those vulnerabilities in their own systems while exploiting them in their opponents to earn points.
Cadet teams were forced to deal with information overload in a timed-based exercise where developing a winning course of action required correctly deploying the resources of the team in the best way possible while also demonstrating complete technical competence to solve extremely difficult challenges.