ABRAHAM LINCOLN CAPITAL AIRPORT, Ill. – During drill weekends, Illinois National Guard Soldiers and Airmen often go to the range for training. A typical day at the range might include training in physical fitness, land navigation and weapons qualification.
This year a new range, the Illinois National Guard’s Joint Cyber Range, will offer service members and their civilian partners an exciting training tool in the cyber domain.
The Illinois Air National Guard’s 183rd Air Wing, based in Springfield, hosts the cyber range. The facility includes 10 servers, networking equipment, computer terminals and other information technology infrastructure that can create a variety of training scenarios.
The Joint Cyber Range will bring challenging but safe training to the Illinois National Guard’s cyber service members and their Illinois partners.
“The National Guard has taken an increasingly important role in responding to cyberattacks and conducting cyber defense both in state missions and within our national missions,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the adjutant general of Illinois and commander of the Illinois National Guard. “The Illinois National Guard Joint Cyber Range allows us and our partners to practice our cyber skills together much in the same way we might be required to respond to a real-world cyber event.”
“It can be used for a wide range of training and exercise applications,” said 1st Lt. Paul Murley, the officer leading the cyber range project. “We are building toward a primary cyber exercise scenario, but because of the flexibility the virtual environment provides, it is also an effective tool for training system administrators and network admins.”
Murley said a typical training scenario consists of two teams taking opposing sides across the network. One side attempts to disrupt the network, while the other works to secure it and correct vulnerabilities. The cyber range allows these battles to take place in real time on a network separated from the outside world.
“Having the dedicated hardware allows us to take advantage of training opportunities as they arise,” said Master Sgt. Chris Ward of the 183rd Wing’s Air Communications Flight and a senior leader on the Illinois National Guard’s Joint Cyber Task Force. Previously, the cyber warriors would have to schedule the unit-owned information technology hardware in advance because it was typically occupied for other missions.
Ward, who heads global security operations for a Chicago corporation, said having the dedicated platform also makes it easier to train with other state agencies, military services, corporate or utility partners, or potential international partners.
“You do not have to deal with some of the constraints you’d have working with DOD networks,” he said. “Having a closed, safe platform allows you to take the kid gloves off and really go at it.”
Ward said he hopes to host training on the Joint Cyber Range with the Illinois National Guard’s State Partnership Program allies in the Polish military.
“I had the opportunity to go to Poland and train with them in the Polish military’s Cyber Warfare Center, and they have skilled cyber warriors. We would love to explore more opportunities to learn from each other,” he said.
There are already cybersecurity courses for Soldiers and Airmen to build their skills, but Murley said there is no substitute for real-time training with an active adversary.
“First and most important is that it provides a venue for Soldiers and Airmen to try, fail and learn in the world of cybersecurity without negative externalities,” Murley said. “Flight simulators are essential for pilot training, and similarly here, we are able to put operators into the cyber ‘cockpit’ without risking damage to real-world networks.”
The total access provided by the range is an exciting tool in the Illinois National Guard’s cyber tool belt.
“As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron,” Neely said. “Our cyber warriors become better by competing against each other and with increased opportunities to work with other cyber professionals. The Joint Cyber Range allows them to hone their skills against each other in a safe environment.”