NEWS | May 20, 2019

The Online Battle

By Sgt. Nathaniel Free 174th Cyber Protection Team

It was a hot Saturday afternoon in July 2005. U.S. forces quickly surrounded an internet café on the outskirts of Baghdad, capturing an al Qaeda courier standing outside. An email was recovered, signed by the terrorist network’s then second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was hiding deep in Pakistan. The email was addressed to the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, known as the “Sheikh of the Slaughterers.”

In the email, Al-Zawahiri outlined a step-by-step plan to expel Americans from Iraq and establish a caliphate. Part of that plan was focused on a new battlefield.

“I say to you,” Al-Zawahiri wrote, in Arabic, “that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place online.”

It was a call to action.

Over a decade later, eighteen Utah Army National Guard soldiers from the 174th Cyber Protection Team departed from the Utah National Guard Headquarters in Draper, headed to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, to join the online battle as part of Task Force Echo III.

The task force consists of 12 states working together under the 126th Cyber Battalion based out of Massachusetts. The team will be defending the continuity and stability of U.S. infrastructure during their 400-day deployment.

“We live in an increasingly complex world,” said Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, in an opening statement at the team’s departure ceremony. “This nation is much more difficult to defend than it was a couple years ago.”

He went on to say that while Fort Meade might not be the deserts of the Middle East, the cyber domain equally important, if not more so.

“There’s vulnerabilities in any system,” said Cpt. Brandon Morris, commander of the 174th Cyber Protection Team. “We’re mitigating the enemy’s ability to affect operations in the cyber domain—both military systems and civilian systems.”

To put it simply, the 174th Cyber Protection Team will be defending the American people on the home front. Wake up and flip a switch, a light will come on. Turn a leaver, water will flow from a faucet. Drive to work, lights change from green to red.

The American way of life.

“This particular unit is composed of skilled professionals in the cyber realm,” Burton explained. “And they do battle with keystrokes.”

According to Morris, each of the eighteen soldiers have been training for the last three years in preparation for this deployment and they are ready to put that training to use, to operationalize it into something that will protect the American people.

“As far as the overall technical competence of our team, I can safely say that we are the strongest of all the states,” said Cpt. Kylie Boyle, senior officer in charge of the 174th Cyber Protection Team. “We specifically focus on defensive cyber operations. There’s a lot of critical infrastructure-hardening.”

The benchmark qualification for cyber security operators is the Certified Information Systems Security Professionalism certification, Boyle explained. It’s one of the most challenging certifications in the field of information technology. The exam alone for this particular certification is six hours long, so it’s no small feat that every member of the team currently holds this certification.

Burton pointed out that many of these Soldiers left high-paying jobs in the information technology field to go on this deployment.

“You’re paid a lot more in the civilian sector for what you do than what the United States Army can pay you,” he said. “That’s admirable.”

From deserts of the Middle East, to the shifting sands of the cyber domain, Utah National Guard Soldiers stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States.