WASHINGTON — The Army team in charge of providing a training platform for Department of Defense cyber warriors is readying the third version to release in the first half of the year.
After delivering the second version to U.S. Cyber Command in October, officials told C4ISRNET in a January interview that the third version of the Persistent Cyber Training Environment will roll out in the second quarter of 2021.
PCTE is an online client that allows Cyber Command’s warriors to log on from anywhere in the world to conduct individual or collective cyber training as well as mission rehearsal. The Army is running the program on behalf of the joint cyber force and Cyber Command.
The second version provided the ability to catalog training content and search past training events; improved event scheduling and team management; and made on-the-fly changes to the platform and training events easier.
The third version will include additional feedback channels for users and provide a snapshot of network health for training managers. It will also include content repositories to house previous scenarios built by training or content managers. This will allow for quicker training or mission rehearsals because users can select scenarios from a dropdown menu, or managers can easily update them with new capabilities or items.
“I can’t think of how many times we’ve heard use case stories where one service will develop a set of training content on PCTE … and another service was like, ‘Hey, I saw you do that. We have the same problem set.’ They pull it down out of the library either use it as is or make some updates to it, tweak it,” Lt. Col. Thomas Monaghan, the program manager, told C4ISRNET. “That’s the power of the platform. That’s the whole purpose.”
Commanders are used to the lengthy timetables to execute training, but delays aren’t acceptable in the fast-paced cyber realm. Commanders ask how long it takes to build training content, and they often expect a wait time of six months or years, Monaghan said. But with PCTE, the timeline to get training ready for the force is hours or days, depending on the complexity.
Additional software drops improve the platform within an agile DevOps environment.
The top three members of the PCTE team will change out soon on their normally scheduled changeover, starting with Monaghan in the next couple of months. These were the first members of the team, with the office built from scratch in the 2017-2018 timeframe, a somewhat difficult task given the program’s untraditional nature. Unlike traditional acquisition programs, this project was largely software based and had to scale up quickly. Officials analogized it to building the airplane while flying it.
This is the most rapid and agile program Monaghan said he’s worked on in his acquisition career, which includes programs from Special Operations Command, known for moving fast on gear.
Officials also described a Silicon Valley mentality of failing fast, fixing mistakes and getting something to market. The platform is up to 5,500 registered users. The initial request was to have about 6,000 by 2023.
The program has integrated live kits, or tools, cyber mission force personnel use in training events. They can also virtualize equipment to give the event a more realistic feel.
On top of the new version, program team members explained that they are also close to awarding contracts for Cyber Innovation Challenge 4, the next competition in a series to award and layer new technologies onto the platform incrementally and build the platform itself. The challenges often involve smaller, nontraditional defense companies.
CIC 4, also expected in the second quarter of the year, asked for assessments of the cyber mission force, which will increase Cyber Command’s ability to assess the force’s readiness.
Partnering down under
Cyber Command recently inked a first-of-its-kind agreement with Australia to partner on PCTE, allowing the country to conduct remote training on the platform without the U.S. hosting sessions. There are plans to deliver the hardware tools to enable Australian-only cyber training, said Elizabeth Bledsoe, the deputy product manager for the program.
The partnership bolsters mutual defense, Bledsoe said, especially since Australia is closer to two of the world’s preeminent cyber threats. Australian teams can take what they see in their backyard, so to speak, into training scenarios.
“Doing these combined exercises just allows the opportunity to develop those techniques and those battle handoff type things in order for us to mutually defend each other,” she said.
Bledsoe is in talks with Canada and the United Kingdom about their interest in PCTE, she added. There is also a Cyber Command policy waiting official approval for usage and combined training with PCTE for the Five Eyes alliance — Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.