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U.S. Marines and Civilians with Marine Corps Cyberspace Warfare Group and Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Battalion participate in Cyber Flag 23-2 at an undisclosed location, Aug. 7, 2023. The purpose of the exercise was to enhance readiness and cyber warfare capabilities. Each team was strategically positioned in an offensive or defensive role, engaging with various cyber-attack and defense scenarios.

Photo by Cpl. Oneg Plisner

Digital Frontlines: The Marines' Battle in the Virtual Trenches of Cyber Flag 23-2

23 Aug 2023 | Cpl. Oneg Plisner Defense Media Activity

To safeguard virtual spaces that house national secrets, power our daily lives, and influence global interactions, the United States Marine Corps remains proactive by being at the forefront of this battle. This was highlighted by the Marine Corps Cyberspace Warfare Group and Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Battalion's participation in this year's Cyber Flag event.

"Nowadays, normal is technology," said Sgt. Michael Rodriguez, a Defensive Cyberspace Operator with the Marine Corps Cyberspace Warfare Group. He paints a vivid picture of our everyday dependence on digital infrastructure. "Remember whenever we had a toilet paper shortage, imagine that happening but with dairy products or beef and chicken. People not being able to get their food or not being able to communicate with people, everything could turn to anarchy real quick."

According to Michael Fanning, a network analyst, "The Cyber Flag event is a training event where we come together, and it's really a way to test the team." The event is split into teams called "cells." The red cell tries to breach the network, and the blue cell identifies and stops these attempts. "So once we find [the breaches] on Friday, we talk to the red team, and we went through some of the things they did," he shared.

"We're expeditionary. We go everywhere the Marine Corps tells us to go." Sgt. Michael Rodriguez, Defensive Cyberspace Operator, MCCYWG.

Rodriguez elaborates on the real-world implications of their work. "Basically, cybersecurity," he explains, discussing his specialty in defensive operations. Their goal is to detect malicious activity on Marine Corps-related networks. "We know for a fact that they're going to be on there," he says, referencing the guaranteed threats in the training environment.

Fanning emphasizes the broader importance of the event, "It happens all the time. Not only when you go home knowing what is being collected, but how to defend yourself against it." The implications of a cyber-attack can be significant, affecting national security and the economy. "The new mindset is not when we get attacked; it's how soon can we realize that we're already compromised."

While the exercise is about simulated scenarios, its real value lies in collaboration. Fanning highlights working with international allies, recalling, "I went overseas, working with the Army as well over to Albania, and then even with this team, we actually went over to Korea." Rodriguez also speaks of joint operations with other military branches, emphasizing the significance of communication in cybersecurity.

The comprehensive training these experts receive, like the Joint Cyber Analysis Course in Pensacola, Florida, covers the evolution of technology. Rodriguez and his peers are trained to respond swiftly to breaches, isolating and analyzing affected machines in a virtual "sandbox."

Cyber Warfare Photo by Cpl. Oneg Plisner
U.S. Marines and Civilians with Marine Corps Cyberspace Warfare Group and Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Battalion participate in Cyber Flag 23-2 at an undisclosed location, Aug. 7, 2023. The purpose of the exercise was to enhance readiness and cyber warfare capabilities. Each team was strategically positioned in an offensive or defensive role, engaging with various cyber-attack and defense scenarios.

Fanning walks through his daily tasks, starting by checking for alerts. "The first thing I do is I log on, and I make sure there are no alerts that have been generated." His team establishes a baseline of normal network activity, ensuring genuine threats are identified. "Once I get through alerts, I'll go through, and I use the intelligence that we were given based off of what the threat is."

Speaking of the broader value of the Cyber Flag event, Fanning notes, "It trains us. It's not every day you find a compromise. So getting that experience of actually hunting and finding something builds confidence."

Every event offers lessons. Rodriguez admits to their challenges, stating, "Now we can go back to the drawing board, see where we didn't think of the full picture, and try to put those implementations into our plan." He highlights the Marine Corps' adaptability and says, "We're expeditionary. We go everywhere the Marine Corps tells us to go."

As our reliance on digital technology grows, so does the importance of events like Cyber Flag. They train our defense experts and highlight the ever-evolving nature of threats in the digital age. The Cyber Flag event encapsulates the ever-evolving world of cyber defense, where vigilance, collaboration, and continuous learning are the keys to safeguarding our digital realm. Through the dedicated efforts of individuals like Fanning, Rodriguez, the MCCYWG, and MCCOB teams, our virtual borders remain secure, as the heartbeat of cyber defense keeps pace with the ever-evolving digital threats.


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