The Department of Defense’s cyber leaders are using a spring exercise — where for the first time multiple teams helped commanders understand their cyber options on the battlefield — as a way to better work together in future conflicts.

“These exercises taught us a great deal about ourselves and we’ve come out stronger than we started,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Skinner, who leads 24th Air Force, which participated in the exercise. “The lessons we learned will help us continue to improve our readiness and lethality.”

Cyber Lightning 2019 was the U.S. Cyber Command portion of European Command’s Austere Challenge exercise, which featured 4,500 individuals from multiple NATO countries and personnel from U.S. Strategic and Transportation commands. The exercise took place March 13-26.

The exercise sought to test new cyber planning cells located within the combatant command staffs. These cells are known as cyber operations-integrated planning elements (CO-IPE). The new organizations were mandated for all the service cyber components in 2017 as satellite offices of the cyber entities that actually control cyber forces. They are expected to be fully operational by 2022.

“This was really the first combatant command Tier I exercise that we had all three of our IPEs playing together,” Col. William Hill, director of plans for Air Forces Cyber, told Fifth Domain in a May interview.

The three Air Force planning organizations support European Command, Strategic Command and Transportation Command.

Hill noted that the Air Force and other services are still staffing these organizations.

Cyber Lightning marked the first large exercise that these new organizations have been in place as a permanent entity within the combatant commands, Hill said. Previously, the combatant commands did not have anyone on staff to say what could cyber options were available. For example, if a combatant command wanted to cut off encrypted communications in one area, a cyber planner could say that such a possibility existed and then communicate that plan to the remote headquarters for execution.

These planning cells can also help in deconflicting cyberspace, an increasingly complex task as multiple friendly forces — such as globally focused defensive cyber teams, teams focused on protecting the homeland abroad or teams from other combatant commands — could potentially bump into each other in cyberspace.

Aside from a new Integrated Cyber Center/Joint Operations Center that can coordinate these forces globally, various planning organizations from across the services and combatant commands also communicate with each other, Hill said.

Despite still being somewhat nascent, Hill said he believes these planning organizations are making a difference at the combatant commands.

“Part of it is providing some general situational awareness, some of it is providing better coordination for defensive cyber activities and actually helping the combatant command get help where they need it,” he said. “The other part is we’re building partnerships internally, externally, interagency and partner nations, NATO or other allies.”

Cyber Command leaders have said integrating cyber into operations is now happening more regularly.

Ultimately, Hill said he hopes these planning organizations seamlessly exist within the combatant commands as a part of the staffs.

“At some point this has to be less special,” he said.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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