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Cyber warriors: Cadets shine in NSA competition
Cadet 1st Class Jordan Keefer, center, coordinates cadet efforts to defend their network during the National Security Agency's Cyber Defense Exercise April 17, 2012. The Air Force Academy team took first place in the competition, outscoring the other U.S. service academies as well as two post-graduate Air Force Institute of Technology teams. Keefer is the cadet in charge of the Academy's cyber competition team. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)
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Cyber warriors: Cadets shine in NSA competition

Posted 4/27/2012   Updated 4/27/2012 Email story   Print story


by Gino Mattorano
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

4/27/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Cadet cyber warriors swept the virtual floor with the competition in the 12th annual Cyber Defense exercise April 16-20 here.

The Cyber Defense Exercise is a network security competition where service academy cadets and Defense Department post-graduate students manage and defend computer networks and maintain services against simulated intrusions by the National Security Agency's red cell aggressor team.

During the competition, NSA network specialists and military network experts formed the red cell team that challenged cadet blue cell teams to defend a closed-computer network that they designed, built, and configured at their respective academies. NSA graded each team's ability to maintain network services while dealing with security intrusions.

The exercise took place at the NSA's Fort Meade, Md., headquarters and at each of the academies on virtual, private networks, providing a safe path for the exercise while preventing interference with real-world networks.

Academy cadets put a great deal of work into preparation for the competition.

"It was quite a marathon," said Cadet 1st Class Jordan Keefer of Cadet Squadron 37. "For most of us this is a hobby, so it was a lot of work, but it's what we like to do."

But the cadet team didn't have time to celebrate their victory before they hopped on a plane to participate in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio April 20-22. Their tenacity earned them second place in the competition, finishing behind the University of Washington, who won for the second straight year.

"By the time we started the second competition, the challenge wasn't the computers" Keefer said. "It was maintaining our motivation; but I feel like we did that."

Dr. Martin Carlisle, the cyber competition team coach was extremely proud of his team's efforts in both competitions.

"One thing that we're particularly proud of, is these cadets are a very new team," he said. "We've only been a team formally for one year now, and they've gone from nothing to not only beating all the other service academies, but also the graduate schools. And then, totally fatigued from that, they went directly to the national competition. They competed against teams that could have up to two graduate students and still came in second against 10 regional finalists from more than 100 teams across the country."

The cyber competition team was established in August, 2011. In the past, cadets from senior-level classes and the cyber warfare club competed in cyber competitions, but this is the first year the Academy has had a dedicated cyber team, Carlisle said.

"They've made amazing progress over the last year and we're really proud of what they're going to do to defend our nation and the Air Force in the future using the skills they've learned," Carlisle said.

This year we have eight cadets on team, but we're hoping to increase that number to 12 next year to include underclassmen," Carlisle said. "We're trying to train people across all four years in all cyber disciplines.

So far this year, the cyber team participated in 15 competitions.

"We have always placed in the top 15-30 percent, and what I always tell the Dean is that we compete not only against undergraduate programs, but we compete against graduate students and computer security professionals," Carlisle said.

During the competitions, teams are assessed on their ability to maintain network services while detecting and responding to network intrusions and compromises. They are also graded on their ability to maintain an exchange server, ftp server, web server and domain controller. They also must submit timely and accurate incident reports as they detect red cell activity.

To succeed in that effort, the cyber team spends a great deal of time preparing to compete.

"Mondays through Thursdays, we're in the cyber lab for 1½ hours, so we train almost every day," said Cadet 2nd Class Nathan Hart, of Cadet Squadron 13.

Training for back-to-back competitions created unique challenges for the team.

"Our success speaks well for our general preparation," Keefer said. "We didn't have any time to prepare for the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio. Our success there was due to our preparation for the first competition. When we showed up in San Antonio, we didn't have time to prepare for that competition, but we had put down such a broad base of experience for the cyber defense exercise that we were ready."

The cadets take the lessons they learn from the competition and use it to improve their cyber skills.

"Every competition we go to we learn some new trick or something new to watch for," Hart said. "You have to constantly be able to adapt, because the playing field is constantly changing."

The cadets will take the skills they develop in the cyber program to their careers in the Air Force.

"When I first got to the Academy, I wanted to fly," Keefer said. "But then I took the basic cyber course and attended my first competition, and I've been hooked ever since. There are so many challenges in the cyber field."

Carlisle expressed his pride in the cadets' accomplishments and his belief in the merits of the program.

"One of the exciting things about the cyber team is that their efforts will matter in the defense of the nation," he said. "These people are learning skills that are going to be essential to the defense of the nation."

The Academy team competed for the trophy and bragging rights against competitors from the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, U.S. Military Academy. Teams from the Royal Military College of Canada and Air Force Institute of Technology also competed, but weren't eligible for the trophy.


U.S. Air Force Academy - 71.78
Air Force Institute of Technology (1)* - 71.65
Air Force Institute of Technology (2)* - 65.80
Royal Military College (Canada)* - 64.08
U.S. Military Academy - 64.04
U.S. Naval Academy - 56.71
U.S. Coast Guard Academy - 48.91

* - Post-graduate teams (not eligible for the Cyber Defense Exercise championship)

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