GULFPORT, Miss. --
More than 20 members of the 175th Cyber Operations Group, Maryland Air National Guard, participated in Southern Strike 21 in various locations of Mississippi from April 14-29, 2021.
Southern Strike is a large-scale, conventional and special operations exercise hosted by the Mississippi National Guard at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center and other locations around the state.
Approximately 2,000 service members from both the active and reserve components of U.S. military service participated in this joint international combat exercise including U.S. Army Special Operations forces. This exercise was a robust display of counterinsurgency, close air support, non-combatant evacuation, and maritime special operations events. For the first time in its ten years, Southern Strike 21 included the integration of a full-spectrum cyber component from the Maryland Air National Guard.
“Truthfully we came down here, this being the first time that cyber has ever been asked to participate in Southern Strike, and we were a little apprehensive of what that might mean and how we would work,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Charles Gruver, the white cell team lead from the 275th Operations Support Squadron, MDANG.
Gruver explained that, unlike past exercises where the training environment was very scripted, Southern Strike 21 posed an opportunity for the 175th COG to define what their training objectives would be and how they could best integrate with the other participants.
“The team originally came down here with the thought that we would just be doing a mission inside our normal exercise environment,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Christina Mayo, the project officer for the 175th COG’s participation in Southern Strike and a cyber operator for the 175th Cyber Operations Squadron, MDANG. “Well, I upped the challenge by actually saying, if you find the mission, and you brief it to me, and we get approved through an exercise control group. You can do this.”
Mayo explained a typical exercise environment for cyber involves players within various cells who all train together in a scripted environment where network threats are simulated. Red cell players serve as threat actors for blue cell players to defend against within a virtual environment built by black cell players. White cell players oversee the exercise to ensure exercise rules are adhered to.
The undefined nature of the cyber component of Southern Strike 21 required these cyber professionals to think creatively and innovatively solve problems they may find in real-world situations integrating with partners.
“A big component to why we're here at Southern Strike is to actually build relationships, learn how deployment works, and also to understand that flexibility is extremely important, especially in an environment where it's very demanding,” explains Mayo, who facilitated several elements of a simulated deployment including the transportation of 175th COG Airmen on a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.
In addition to establishing a simulated deployed experience, Southern Strike 21 provided an opportunity for 175th COG Airmen to integrate with partners and a better understanding of how cyber impacts their missions.
“When we go on a mission, we're very focused on getting communications up and maintaining that communication,” said Chief Warrant Officer Samuel Athanassov, a signal warrant officer for 2nd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group. “Having the cyber team here has been a good way for us to step back, and also get the guys to look at the broader picture and understand it's not just about talking from one end to the other but it is also about protecting communication and that network, multi-faceted attacks.”
Over the past 10 years, Southern Strike has expanded its scope and depth of the exercise to include a range of air-to-ground, maritime, and other components. However, the missing component in previous years was cyber and space explains U.S. Air Force Col. Cynthia Smith, the exercise director for Southern Strike 21.
“Bringing in cyber this year is one of our primary focuses for our vulnerabilities,” said Smith. “It's growing with our near peer adversaries, and just being able to develop a relationship with the end-user, or those forces on the ground and in the air as well, and teach them about where they're vulnerable and then what we have in place to defend against those threats, is vital to going forward.”