Academy competes in cyber-defense exercise

Cadet 4th Class Christopher Shields monitors intrusions into an Air Force Academy cadet-operated network during a Cyber-Defense Exercise April 24. Cadets spent four days defending their systems from personnel working for the National Security Agency's Information Assurance Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadet 4th Class Christopher Shields monitors intrusions into an Air Force Academy cadet-operated network during a Cyber-Defense Exercise April 24. Cadets spent four days defending their systems from personnel working for the National Security Agency's Information Assurance Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadets successfully defend a computer network against simulated intrusions during a Cyber-Defense Exercise April 24. The cyber exercise is a computer security competition designed to educate cadets about the role of information assurance in protecting critical information systems. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadets successfully defend a computer network against simulated intrusions during a Cyber-Defense Exercise April 24. The cyber exercise is a computer security competition designed to educate cadets about the role of information assurance in protecting critical information systems. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Capt. Michael Henson and 25 Air Force cadets worked and operated together to support a fictional deployment with services that needed to remain running such as e-mail, DNS and chat while under attack from NSA red cell members.

After four days of being attacked, months of preparation, and building a network, the Academy team learned May 4 that it had earned eighth place.

The CDX, annually sponsored and conducted by the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, this year included teams from the five U.S. Service Academies: U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Also participating this year was the Air Force Institute of Technology, the Naval Postgraduate School and - for the first time - the Royal Military College of Canada. Canada is an allied partner of the National Security Agency.

The cyber exercise is a computer security competition designed to foster education and awareness among future military leaders about the role of information assurance in protecting the nation's critical information systems. The exercise challenged teams of students drawn from each of the service academies with designing, building, and successfully defending a real-world computer network against simulated intrusions by a team of Department of Defense experts. The entire exercise was conducted on virtual private networks, providing a safe path for the exercise while preventing interference with real-world networks.

"For me, it was definitely an edge-of-your-seat experience because I was on the Intrusion Detection System team, which meant I was looking at live traffic most of the time looking for attacks and forwarding that information to the Firewall Team so that bad addresses could be blocked," said computer science with cyber warfare major Cadet 4th Class Christopher Shields. "We could see how the other academies were doing to some extent because we each needed to have a Web site that had the current status of our systems."

Most time was spent actively monitoring their systems so they did not have a lot of time to watch other academies.

"All we could see was the status of their systems from their website and hear what they were bragging about, which was not the most reliable information," said the cadet from Wyomissing, Pa.

Since he was a volunteer, Cadet Shields tried to come into the lab as much as possible during the class times and spent a lot of time over the weekends getting systems up and running. "It is difficult to learn the types of skills required to be able to compete in a competition like the CDX in classes," he said. He was using previous computer experience gained from working with computers most of his life.

"We had various different teams who were in charge of the many different systems our network needed to have up and running," he said. "We had to be able to count on each other that each team was knowledgeable about their systems and could perform on-the-fly maintenance. Some of the systems included a web server, email server, instant messaging server, and general computer workstations."

He is convinced he gained a lot of experience from the 2009 CDX and is looking forward to next year's competition.

"I think we have what it takes to win next year," he said. "A few people will have already participated in one CDX and will be able to lead next year's teams and help them focus on the most important aspects of our network design and security. I feel very lucky to be able to take part in the CDX's and hopefully I will be able to return for all four years. This has been a very exciting and educational experience for me since I have been reading about the CDX since I was in high school. Being able to participate in the exercise that I read up on and was very interested in high school is an amazing and very rewarding experience." 

Cadet 1st Class Bryon Fryer was with others in the Academy CDX Lab. The cyberware major had prepared and built the firewall system.

"We were very vigilant in our security posture," said the cadet squadron 28 member from Harrisburg, Pa. "The other academies networks were on different subnets so we only saw traffic that was directed at our network."

After countless hours of studying and understanding how his system worked and Cadet Fryer built a robust and flexible security posture for the network.

"The ability to know how and when to augment and reconfigure the network security policies in order to prevent intrusions and read and understand traffic logs was critical," he said. "While the Academy did not place first this year, we will be a force to reckon with next year."