Cyber Defense

The No. 1 battlefield threat? Cyberattacks

NIE 16.1 network defense

Members of the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team defend the network at NIE.


The Army has over 200 years’ experience dealing with the physical threats of the battlefield, and leaders are pretty confident in their ability to overcome them. These days, it’s the other kind of threat that has them concerned.

"The greatest threat I face as a brigade commander on the battlefield is not tanks, snipers or IEDs," Col. Chuck Masaracchia said as the Army got started hosting the largest-ever joint forces network exercise. "It's defending the network."

The importance of cyber defense on the battlefield reflects two relatively recent developments in military operations. First, just about any enemy can launch cyberattacks, because the cost of doing so is relatively low and the technology is readily available. And second, the Army needs that network to function, because so many systems depend on it and interact with each other through it.

"I am more than confident of our force's capabilities to destroy any force on the battlefield—as long as we can provide mission command," Masaracchia, commander of the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, said in a release, shortly after the start of Network Integration Evaluation 16.1, which is taking place Sept. 25 to Oct. 8 at Fort Bliss, Texas, and nearby White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, both in  New Mexico.

The Army has been hosting NIEs twice a year since 2011, in order to test the integration and interoperability of new technologies into the battlefield network, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical. NIE 16.1 is serving as the final proof of concept for a new exercise that will replace one of the NIEs each year, the multinational, innovation-focused Army Warfighting Assessment (AWA). The current exercise includes some 9,000 military and 3,000 civilian participants—nearly three times the total of a typical NIE—from the U.S. military services, the U.K., Italy and 12 other countries.

The exercise is designed to take place in a realistic battlefield environment, so along with combat training and testing networking equipment to make sure it works with U.S. and coalition systems, forces also will operate while under cyberattack.

Masaracchia pointed out that the United States’ enemies are getting ever more adept at cyber exploits, which will require constant monitoring and defense of WIN-T and other systems that ride on WIN-T, including the Distributed Common Ground System - Army, Blue Force Tracking tools, and intelligence feeds from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

Practicing cyber warfare on the battlefield is something the military has been ramping up. Last fall, the Marine Corps added the Office of Naval Research’s Tactical Cyber Range to its arsenal during the Corps’ bi-annual Bold Alligator exercise. In addition to defending against cyberattacks from an engaged enemy, there are other practical reasons for cyber defense, because attacks could come from anywhere. During last year’s worldwide Joint Users Interoperability Communications Exercise, for example, organizers found they didn’t need to assemble a red team to try to disrupt the tests; the world has plenty of hackers who will attack a network just because it’s there.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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