CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the contract worth for Cyber Trident. It is worth $957 million.
WASHINGTON — For years, cyberwarriors didn’t have the same critical training grounds as their counterparts fighting on land, in waters or in the sky. Despite the ever-shifting battle space, these troops weren’t seeing the same opportunities to hone their skills.
That changed about three years ago, when the first users were able to access the Persistent Cyber Training Environment, or PCTE — an online client that allows U.S. Cyber Command’s cyber mission force to log on from anywhere in the world for individual or collective training as well as mission rehearsal.
With these virtual training spaces, user can conduct exercises in a more remote fashion, and units and individuals can train on demand simply by logging in.
The Army, which is running the program on behalf of the joint cyber force and Cyber Command, is now readying to deploy the fourth version of the platform to the command in January, program officials told C4ISRNET.
Key to this latest version is a more user-friendly engine for discovering training events, exercises or modules available to units, meant to reduce redundancy and make for better individual and team training.
Since its initial deployment to the force, individual units have used the program to build and design their own training events. Given the joint nature of cyber teams, a scenario built by one team or service could be applicable to another — but that type of sharing wasn’t easily accomplished.
Version 4 will provide a recommendation engine to quickly group content together in a Netflix-type library, Robert Parrish, a lead engineer on cyber resiliency and training within the Army’s Program Executive Office Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, said in an interview. The move is meant to improve coordination and reduce duplication.
Version 4 will also provide improved instructor-trainee interaction with lab-based training for forces after they come out of the schoolhouse and head to their operational unit.
This builds on version 3, which was deployed this spring and included feedback channels for users. It also offered a snapshot of network health for training managers as well as content repositories to house previous scenarios built by training or content managers.
The platform has already seen more than 9,000 registered users, largely a result of major exercises with thousands of participants.
But officials said the daily number of users outside of large training events has increased. This includes self-paced modules that individuals can take whenever they want as well as smaller-scale group training events.
In between the major version releases, the PCTE will receive incremental improvements, much like versions of Apple operating systems for the iPhone. These could include bug fixes, scalability fixes or new features.
At the same time, the military is continuing its cyber innovation challenges, which deliver incremental capability to the training platform. These serve as competitions to award contracts and layer new technologies onto the platform, often involving smaller, nontraditional defense companies. The most recent contract for such innovation challenges was awarded in February and includes improved assessments and traffic generation, though these likely won’t be folded in until version 5.
The improved assessments will prove crucial for Cyber Command, as it will help bolster readiness reporting of forces.
Officials previously pointed to traffic generation as a critical capability because cyber forces will need to operate across the entire information environment, not just certain networks. These include friendly space; gray space, which refers to the neutral area of the broader internet; and adversarial networks, known as red space.
Because both of these features were recently awarded, they’re still in the works with some early traffic capabilities being rolled out.
Integration with other cyber programs
PCTE is one component of Cyber Command’s Joint Cyber Warfighting Architecture, or JCWA, created a few years ago to steer the command’s acquisition and equipping priorities. It is comprised of six pieces, including a data ingestion platform and a platform for battle management.
Cyber Command has been working to integrate these disparate tools, platforms and systems so that they can interoperate with the entire cyber mission force — a challenging task given each armed service is procuring a portion of the architecture on behalf of the joint force.
For PCTE, integrating with these other systems not only reduces logins and accounts for multiple systems, but also allows for data feeds, such as readiness numbers, to seamlessly feed into operational platforms.
Take Joint Cyber Command and Control, a program within JCWA that will integrate data from a variety of sources to help inform and support commanders’ decisions, measure readiness down to the individual level, visualize cyberspace, and provide situational awareness of forces in operations at all echelons: Officials said there are early pilot efforts underway to populate PCTE data within a portion of JCC2 known as Project Ike.
“We touched a lot of different components of the JCWA because they want us for mission rehearsal when it comes to being able to track readiness data and actual people conducting training,” Parrish said. “People are going to be conducting training in PCTE, and we’ve got to be able to feed that into the JCWA ecosystem so that people can query that data and figure out the readiness structure of a team or to team up for recertification events.”
The Army is also readying a contract award for the Cyber Training, Readiness, Integration, Delivery and Enterprise Technology program, better known as Cyber TRIDENT. PCTE is the main component of this contract vehicle, worth up to $957 million and meant to offer a more streamlined approach for procuring the military’s cyber training capabilities going forward.
The winner of that contract will essentially inherit the PCTE platform and handle its management, maintenance and evolution. This includes platform architecture and product management, agile development and delivery systems engineering processes, development and automation, hardware and software infrastructure management, user event support, development operations environment management, PCTE infrastructure tool management, help desk support, and on-site and remote support.
To date, the Army has taken an agile approach to building the platform. But going forward, it will need more long-term management and integration assistance from industry.
Lt. Col. Daniel Rodriguez, product manager for cyber resiliency and training within Program Executive Office Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, said an award is expected in the first quarter of 2022.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.