NEWS | June 22, 2020

During global pandemic, USCYBERCOM trains virtually to defend networks, protect nation

By U.S. Cyber Command Public Affairs U.S. Cyber Command

For the first time in its history, U.S. Cyber Command is employing a new virtual training platform during a full-force exercise, conducted entirely online.

The Persistent Cyber Training Environment is a Dept. of Defense cyber training platform, now hosting the largest virtual USCYBERCOM exercise to-date.

“Critical infrastructure is vital to our national defense and prosperity,” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral John W. Mauger, USCYBERCOM director of Exercises and Training. “Exercises like Cyber Flag ensure cyber warriors stand ready to protect these assets. Our ability to train and operate in coordination with interagency partners and allies is the key to maintaining lethality against the complex foreign threats to our nation.”

Over the period of two weeks, Cyber Flag 20-2 will host more than 500 personnel worldwide, spanning across nine different time zones and 17 cyber teams. Participants include three allied nations, the Air National Guard, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Dept. of Energy and multiple service cyber components across the DOD.

“Cyber Flag is our annual opportunity to train with our domestic and international partners to sharpen our defensive tradecraft,” Mauger said. “We never lose sight at USCYBERCOM that our mission—alongside our allies and U.S. government partners-- is to protect our nation from foreign hostile cyber threats.”

Delivered to the Cyber Mission Force in Feb. 2020, PCTE provides a platform for ongoing assessment and development of cyber tactics, techniques, and procedures for real-world defensive missions across boundaries and networks. Previously, cyber forces developed cyber training ranges for specific scenarios that would be used once, a process that could take months.

Now, PCTE offers a collaborative training environment, enabling cyber teams to develop and re-use already-existing content to train at the individual and group levels anytime.

“PCTE will allow the Cyber Mission Force to train as they fight which is critical to enabling the readiness of our cyber mission force,” said COL Tanya Trout, a Texas Army National Guard officer currently assigned as USCYBERCOM PCTE Director. “PCTE provides the ability to execute repetitions in adaptive training informed by operations in realistic, dynamic, and complex environments.”

PCTE also enables the U.S. military to adapt to the “new normal” in training during a global pandemic. While the platform was originally planned to support CF 20-2 at the Secret level, its agility in design allowed the DOD to quickly pivot to a geographically dispersed execution.  Except for a small group of exercise control and two teams, the entire exercise is conducted remotely through PCTE.

“Even with the challenges of COVID-19, there’s no question that we are able to achieve all operational and readiness objectives, especially with PCTE as our virtual cyber battleground,” Trout said.

What also makes PCTE unique is how it was developed: the cyber mission force first identified the need for a shared, iterative virtual cyber range in Cyber Flag 2015, and has since galvanized an expedited effort to define the requirement and find technical solutions. Leveraging agile acquisition and rapid prototyping, cyber mission operators actively tested and provided feedback, enabling PCTE to meet their operational needs. 

In less than five years, PCTE grew from an identified capability gap to be funded, prototyped, and delivered to cyber operators for use in its fourth version. 

“PCTE is more than just a joint and combined training platform—it is an example of how the U.S. military is innovating and finding efficiencies in time and costs,” said Trout. “The cyber domain only grows more complex and challenging in today’s world, and we have to train for the threats of the future, not just today’s threats. PCTE helps our cyber mission force do that.”