Cadets take on NSA, academies in cyber exercise


Air Force Academy cadets had a chance to spar with the National Security Agency, along with all other service academies April 8-10 during the 14th Cyber Defense Exercise at the academy.

West Point dethroned the Falcons this year in the virtual game of cat and mouse, in which cadets are charged with building a network, then defending it from attacks courtesy of the NSA.

Martin Carlisle, director of the Academy Center for Cyberspace Research, said the networks built by the cadets model those used by businesses on a daily basis.

“It’s like any business, with email, websites, VOIP [voice over Internet protocol], client servers,” he said. “Cadets will watch traffic across the network. They’ll try to get a sense of what normal is and investigate anything abnormal.”

Once the network is built, the NSA tests the team’s defensive capabilities with multiple prongs of attack.

One method is sending malware through Gray Cells, who are NSA employees on site playing the role of users who may click on a link in a questionable email, compromising the security of the network. Gray Cells have more vulnerabilities than hackers, but both pose threats in gathering sensitive information.

A cyber team wins the exercise by maintaining confidentiality, preventing hacks and file theft as well as successfully completing a forensics aspect where they investigate a “prerecorded” hack.

The exercise carries with it many real-world implications, Carlisle said, as demonstrated by the Target security breach last year, resulting in the hacking of millions of confidential customer records including credit card information, as well as the most recent tech bombshell, the “Heartbleed” flaw. The flaw involves widely used browser encryption methods that are not as secure as once thought, and could result in the exposure of personal data, Carlisle said.

In addition, Microsoft recently announced it would no longer provide security patches and updates for its XP operating system, 12-year-old software used by as many as 95 percent of all ATMs worldwide, according to news outlets such as The Washington Post and Business Week.

Each is an example, Carlisle said, of how important cyber defense is, not only with military applications, but also from a civilian standpoint.

Carlisle said the exercise has grown more sophisticated over the years, as have the teams of cadets. The Air Force squad has ranked consistently atop the other military academies since the exercise began more than a decade ago, with West Point cadets generally not far behind.

Carlisle said many of the cadets who participate year to year will graduate and become Cyberspace Operations Officers.

“Those [officers] will build, defend and maintain networks and, for the first time, I can say, conduct … offensive operations.”

When asked if he could elaborate, Carlisle shook his head.

“No, but I can positively admit we do them.”


  1. Martin Carlisle

    Actually, West Point has won the cyber defense exercise more often than the Air Force Academy. In the four years I have been involved, USAFA has won twice, and West Point has won twice. It is in the other competitions that occur during the year that we have more frequently placed above West Point.

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