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National Guard from around the country are in Hampton Roads for the U.S.’ largest cyber exercise

Steve Walsh
Troops from the Virginia National Guard participate in Cyber Shield.

For the past week, hundreds of National Guard troops from 28 states and several countries have been working behind banks of computers at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.

It may not look like it, but they are under attack.

Cyber Shield is the largest military cyber exercise in the U.S.. This year, Virginia is hosting the training for the first time. The exercise is simulating an assault on a private network, like a power company or internet provider. Col. Rusty McGuire, commander of the 91st Cyber Brigade, compares the effort to an infantry field exercise.

“Instead of going out in the woods, we do those same war games, but they're on a cyber range,” he said. “So you have blue force and red force and they're just going after, defending and attacking networks to work on those skills to harness those skills.”

The National Guard's only federal cyber bridge is headquartered in Virginia at Fort Belvoir, south of Washington D.C. The unit is run by McGuire, who is with the Virginia National Guard. The unit defends Department of Defense systems around the world from hackers.

“We can't really talk much about those missions,” McGuire said. “Most of the stuff that we do is classified but just understand that this is a type of unit where we do two primary missions. We do what's called defensive cyber operations, and then we do offensive cyber operations.”

The Guard has become increasingly active in countering cyber attacks over the last decade. Virginia created its first cyber unit in 2017, as other states began setting up their own. At the state level, units will often respond to attacks on private companies.

“Often they can get involved to help those private industry partners recover and defend their infrastructure,” said Lt. Erin Rosenmund, with the Delaware National Guard.

Cyber Shield looks at near-peer competitors like China and Russia, which have been linked to numerous attacks on infrastructure in the United States and its allies. The exercise goes on through Friday.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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