MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. — After nearly two decades of conflict against technologically inferior and insurgency-focused adversaries, the U.S. military and the Army are honing their cyber training against more sophisticated forces.
The Army, for its part, is moving toward a multidomain-capable force, which envisions the seamless integration of forces and capabilities across all spheres of warfare; air, land, sea, space and cyber, as well as the information dimension.
Part of realizing a multidomain force is meeting the need for tactical cyber and information capabilities outside of U.S. Cyber Command. Following a series of exercises and experimental units, the Army activated the 915th Cyber Warfare Battalion in 2019.
This first-of-its-kind unit is designed to provide non-lethal capabilities such as cyber, electronic warfare and information operations in support of Army Service Component Commands and their subordinate elements.
“What we are is a new organization that’s helping define what it means to do multidomain operations from an information advantage standpoint and then through our innovation and experimentation, that’s what’s ultimately going to get recorded in doctrine,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Klimkowski, commander of the 915th, said. “The doctrine writers have never done this before. They need our input to help shape that. It’s our experimentation and our operations that pushes that piece.”
The vision is by 2026 the 915th will consist of 12 expeditionary cyber and electromagnetic activities teams (ECTs), each capable of providing cyber, electronic-warfare and information operations. Currently, there are three companies within the battalion with two ECTs under a separate company, consisting of a total of over 200 personnel. The third ECT is slated to be created at the end of fiscal year 2022.
Moreover, the goal is that each ECT will be aligned to specific geographic theaters.
However, much is still uncertain between then and now as the force is being built. For example, initial and full operating capability criteria for teams are still in the works, officials explained.
The information space changes so rapidly that tactics, techniques, procedures and capabilities will likely need to evolve on a constant basis. The unit is concurrently trying to validate its teams — for which training goals are still being developed on the fly – as well as working on concepts.
“The challenge and growing the cyber force is that it takes time,” Klimkowski, said.
Innovation shaping the future of tactical cyber
Despite nearly ten years of cyber operations within the military, there was little to go on for tactical, on-the-ground cyber operations for conventional forces outside the special operations community.
“On the doctrine side, it hasn’t been a struggle, it’s been an evolution. From the strategic operations to the tactical level, the requirements and the threats that are out there constantly make it evolve,” battalion Sgt. Maj. Marlene Harshman said. “Doctrine, if you will, is, ‘This is how you can do it.’ Well, but what happens if this is how you can do it today but not how you do it tomorrow?”
From the beginning, the battalion and its higher headquarters were given a lot of latitude to innovate and develop the concepts it would need to shape what tactical cyber means.
“Experimentation was key and it was something that 780th [Military Intelligence Brigade] and [Army Cyber Command] said, ‘Hey, you’re a new unit. Take these soldiers and allow them to innovate, allow them to experiment, you got a lot of talent and utilize that these first couple of years.’ We’re not done with that phase. We always want our soldiers to innovate. That will continue through the life of our unit,” Maj. Richard Byrne, the battalion’s operations and training officer, said.
“It’s pretty impressive to take a unit that was largely ideas, concepts, a lot of guidance from higher and take it to where we are now where we’re starting to create a unit that’s steady-state, a little bit more defined and preparing for support to our theaters.”
In fact, they are continuing to evolve training objectives and concepts. During an experiment last year, the unit worked to define key mission essential tasks and objectives needed to validate itself as a ready unit.
“One of the big changes between this year and last year, … the [qualification requirements] that we’ve created weren’t around last year and a lot of experience from the [combat training center] rotations and the experienced soldiers that we’ve got on this unit, a lot of experience went into those and what our training objectives should be, are and will be,” Capt. Gabriel Akonom, an officer with the battalion, said.
What will they do?
As the Army moves to become what it calls multidomain-capable by 2028, the 915th will play a key role in the increasingly important competition — or gray zone — sphere below the threshold of armed conflict.
The battalion is currently aligned with Army-owned component commands at the theater level and will support lower-echelon units as needed. It’s not organic to these units — like military intelligence or military police units — meaning a unit must request assistance from the 915th in a certain scenario based on the mission.
Specifically, its soldiers assist in targeting and providing non-lethal effects while also helping to characterize enemy networks through intelligence and reconnaissance.
“The 915th CWB’s unique close-access and proximal tactical capabilities will be critical” in penetrating enemy defenses, Akonom wrote in The Byte, an online publication published by the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade.
Near-peer adversaries will have very complex systems, necessitating the need to be constantly in contact with them during combat.
Meanwhile, officials said the exact relationship to Cyber Command, which can provide unique remote cyber support to a theater, and the unit is still being determined.
“In each theater it’s going to look different because the [geographic combatant command] and then, by extension, the executive agent for that respective joint force headquarters for cyber is going to employ their forces differently,” Klimkowski said, referencing the Joint Force Headquarters-Cyber structure in which a specific service employs cyber capabilities for geographic combatant commands on behalf of Cyber Command.
“We know INDOPACOM is very different than EUCOM and so it’s going to look different. We’re still working through the nuances of every GCC, but it’s just different.”
As a support element to Army Service Component Commands, the 915th will work very closely with the Multidomain Task Forces, which were designed to be in constant contact with adversaries during the so-called competition phase of conflict. Those units possess a specific battalion that focuses on cyber, electronic warfare, space and information.
One of the key differences between the two, however, is the 915th has the authority to conduct offensive operations.
Officials stressed that in this dynamic domain of cyberspace and information, the unit must maintain its edge to be flexible and innovative, all while continuing to grow and shift with the Army as it builds toward multidomain operations.
“We were designed during the global war on terrorism, but as the Army started thinking critically about large-scale combat operations, we too have essentially have shifted our focus on that as well,” Klimkowski said. “We’re evolving with you and that’s driven some of our thought processes and what’s most critical and what we need to focus on. We’ve had to adapt some of the things that we were previously doing now for a completely new context and situation.”
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.