Hurricanes. Wildfires. Mudslides. When natural disasters strike, the nation often responds by sending in the National Guard and Reserve. In military missions our nation supports around the world, the Guard and Reserve makes up nearly half the total force. In addition to these familiar roles, increasingly, Guardsmen and Reservists are working behind the scenes to take on a less visible, but no less daunting mission: protecting our nation’s cyber infrastructure.

Cyberspace has been called the fifth domain of warfare, a virtual dimension existing alongside land, sea, air, and space. The Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes cyberspace as a critical battleground and is drawing up its forces in that realm. The Guard and Reserve are playing a key role in these battles where enemies are unseen and the potential risks to our way of life incalculable.

Getting the Job Done

Across the country — from the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System to the 177th Information Aggressor Squadron and Maryland’s 175th Cyberspace Operations Group — Guardsmen and Reservists are monitoring networks, collecting and analyzing intelligence data, conducting exercises, and responding to threats.

During the 2016 presidential election, Ohio brought in its own National Guard to defend the election system against hackers in that key battleground state. The Ohio National Guard’s elite cyber unit was the first in the nation to be tapped for such a task.   

In August of 2017, U.S. Army Cyber Command formed Task Force Echo. It is the first full-time Army National Guard cyber unit, representing the largest mobilization of cyber forces from reserve units ever assembled. The 138 members of Task Force Echo were recruited because of their existing cyber expertise.


Members of Task Force Echo render a salute during a transition of authority ceremony at Fort Meade, Md., Aug. 15, 2017. Task Force Echo was the largest mobilization of cyber forces from reserve units ever assembled. It operates under the 780th Military Intelligence Cyber Brigade. (Photo by Joe Lacdan)

Col. Adam Volant, the commander of Task Force Echo, said, “We are military trained, but we also bring an abundant amount of experience from the private sector, from government (and) from academia. The Soldiers in my formation are really information technology professionals. They work for major defense companies. They work for the government. They work for all the major brands that do technology and cyber.”

With this draw-up of military cyber expertise comes intense training — and a lot of it. While service members may be sitting in front of computer screens, the mental flexibility required is grueling. In April of last year, members of the National Guard and Army Reserve came together for Cyber Shield 17, an exercise in which “Red Cell” members played adversary hackers attempting to infiltrate “Blue Cell” cyberinfrastructure. Members of the Blue Cell aggressively defended their systems, a task designed to challenge them to their breaking points.

Red Cell challenges cyber defenders in multi-force exercise

Members of the Army National Guard, Air National Guard, Army Reserve, and civilian agencies prepare to engage in cyberattacks as Red Cell members in Cyber Shield 17 at Camp Williams, Utah, April 27, 2017. The National Guard is working closely with its interagency partners and the private sector to strengthen network cybersecurity and capabilities to support local responses to cyber incidents in Cyber Shield 17. (Army photo by Sgt. Michael Giles)

The difficulty of this exercise was in direct proportion to the high stakes of real-world cyberattacks. As one Blue Team member remarked, “Cyber threats are real. They are already all around us, and they affect every aspect of our daily interactions.”

Examples like these illustrate the growing need for tech-savvy Guardsmen and Reservists as the DoD’s Cyber Mission Force grows. In 2018, the DoD aims to have stood up 133 Cyber Mission Teams. That means more training and more opportunities for personnel —both active and reserve.

The pool of cyber candidates from the Guard and Reserve is potentially quite large. A 2017 study by the RAND Corporation estimates that approximately 100,000 Guardsmen and Reservists have enough technical skill to make them potential cybersecurity assets.

Uniquely Positioned

Tapping into those assets is a major priority of the DoD. As early as 2015, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said of the potential impact of the reserve components on cybersecurity, “There’s a great untapped, not yet fully tapped resource…which is our Guard and Reserve.”

One interpretation is that the Guard and Reserve can provide a bridge between the military’s active components and the civilian realm. “The reserve components of the U.S. military are uniquely positioned to attract, train and manage a cadre of information security professionals who are able to operate both with the active components of the U.S. armed forces and with civilian authorities,” said the authors of an article in Tech Crunch. They go on to say that those who work in the technology sector in their civilian day jobs may bring valuable experience to bear on their military mission.

The reserve components are actively recruiting private sector professionals to its cybersecurity ranks. The National Guard, for example, is looking for Cyber Operations Specialists andCyber Network Defendersto serve.

As Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Army Cyber Command, has stated, “Our Total Force Army — our Army National Guard, our Army Reserve, all of these Soldiers, including the active component, will play a significant role in the future of securing cyberspace defense for our Nation.”

A total force approach involves closely integrating the active and reserve components, and re-defining modern warfare to incorporate that fifth domain, cyberspace. As it has for all its other missions, the Guard and Reserve will take its place on the front lines in defense of this nation.