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  • One possible element of the Persistent Cyber Training Environment (PCTE) as envisioned would include a collaborative cyber training virtual environment where cyber warriors could train in real-life scenarios and learn new skills to be ready for the next cyber attack.
     One possible element of the Persistent Cyber Training Environment (PCTE) as envisioned would include a collaborative cyber training virtual environment where cyber warriors could train in real-life scenarios and learn new skills to be ready for the next cyber attack.

Cyber Train to Cyber Fight

The Cyber Edge
April 1, 2018
By Howard Miller and RADM Bill Leigher, USN, (Ret.)

Simulators bridge experience gap to ensure warriors stay on top of latest threats.

When combatant commanders plan an attack on an enemy stronghold, they know exactly what to do, including which intelligence reports to consider, where to send the ground troops, when to call in an air strike and when to jam the enemy’s radar. But ask those same commanders to attack the enemy in cyberspace and the response will be far less defined.

The strength of the U.S. military’s leadership comes from decades of hard-won knowledge about what works in traditional warfare. Cyber warfare just hasn’t been around long enough to provide the same depth of experience. Many of today’s military leaders trained in a time when cyber barely existed. Just as Maj. Gen. Billy Mitchell, USA, father of the U.S. Air Force, couldn’t have foreseen the tempo of the air battle during operation Desert Storm, today’s commanders can’t intuitively know how to wage battles in this new, ever-changing domain.

Cyber warriors face a complex challenge: At the same time they are learning to operate in cyberspace, the cyber threat is growing and morphing. In a Market Connections survey of 200 information technologists in U.S. federal civilian and defense agencies, 62 percent of U.S. Defense Department respondents identified foreign governments as the greatest source of information technology threats. Simultaneously, the Army Cyber Institute anticipates a significant increase in targeted cyber attacks, particularly against industrial control systems within U.S. critical infrastructure by sophisticated state actors. If the department is to succeed in its quest to make cyber a true capability on the battlefield, it needs a way to get a few centuries worth of validated cyber experience under its belt in just a few years.

One way to achieve this level of cyber mission readiness is to train, and the department already has a plan to provide the necessary skills in a hands-on, collaborative way. It has designated the U.S. Army to lead the development of the Persistent Cyber Training Environment (PCTE).

The Army’s Training and Readiness Accelerator will help develop the PCTE. It will assist in refining requirements and provide information to contractors, universities and other experts throughout the program’s life cycle through an open source approach.

The environment is a cloud-based platform designed to deliver realistic cyber simulations, support individual instruction and certification, allow cyber operators to train simultaneously from opposite sides of the world, and meet the needs of all four services and the U.S. Cyber Command. Work on the PCTE focuses on providing the backbone of this training venue. As envisioned, the environment will connect cyber and universities’ lab ranges as well as the intelligence community to enable cyber warriors to train together.

The PCTE will support the military’s Cyber Mission Force, which works in many roles, including as defensive, offensive and intelligence operators. These forces must collaborate, so training together will improve their job performance and help them work as a cohesive unit.

In addition, as cyber career opportunities continue to grow and mature, the environment will be used to better identify individuals who have both the required interest and skills to become future cyber warriors. It will measure individual and team performance as well as progress toward objectives, and then assign levels of proficiency that will allow combatant commanders to handpick teams based on their abilities and mission needs.

The environment will benefit more than just cyber operators. Eventually, every warfighter will train using the PCTE to understand cyber risks, learn how to react to specific cyber threats and recognize the effect that cyber has on all missions across multiple domains.

One axiom the military lives by is: The battlefield is a bad place to meet an enemy for the first time. Consequently, to prepare for missions, infantry soldiers train to use a .50-caliber rifle using a simulator that emulates the weapon’s sheer mass and rate of fire. F-18 pilots hone their proficiency in simulators that mimic the jet’s handling and replicates the aircraft’s weapons, sensors and gauges.

The PCTE will provide cyber specialists with a comparable realistic environment to train using the same tools they would use on the battlefield. The goal in developing the PCTE is to provide a cyber warfare training environment that replicates real combat scenarios precisely. For example, when a new strain of ransomware rips through a system, cyber specialists in the PCTE will be able to replicate the threat and develop tools, techniques and tactics to defend and defeat it. As a result, the malware would become a monster in a cage.

In addition to authenticity, cyber teams require a venue to continually train to master the latest techniques and maneuvers that incorporates all the joint services. Using the environment to hone their skills, cyber warriors will be able practice doing battle in simulated exercises against each other or against an automated opposing force. They will take on offensive and defensive roles, working in teams to learn and develop strategies for the virtual battlespace.

Not only will the environment enable cyber warriors to train together while located minutes or miles apart, it will provide the same feel as well as intensity while using the same tools to learn the same tactics. Security privileges will determine system access, so a user with a Top-Secret clearance will be able to see a greater level of detail and different security-level networks than someone with a lesser clearance.

Achieving sustained Cyber Mission Force readiness requires practical training, which means adapting to each cyber warrior’s learning style, addressing the unique needs of each service branch and turning cyber warfare into standard military practice. This approach gives combatant commanders a tactical manual and a body of knowledge to draw from when planning missions.

In every other military domain—land, sea, air and space—combatants have learned to train and work alongside one another. With this new cyber training ecosystem, those entrusted to master the cyber domain will finally be able to train as they fight.

A request for proposals for the PCTE is scheduled to be released in fiscal year 2019, followed by the contract award in fiscal year 2020. The contract could be worth up to $750 million over seven years.

Howard Miller is the strategic capture manager for Cyber Training and Exercises and Bill Leigher is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and the director of Government Cyber Solutions at Raytheon Company.

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