During the early-November exercise, ONR outfitted a military operations in an urban terrain training facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with an array of devices that broadcasted a flood of cyber and electronic information. The move was meant to mimic the flurry of cell phone calls, radio communications and e-mail exchanges and more that Marines are likely to encounter in any modern city.
The vast majority of communications during the seven-day exercise were benign exchanges meant to simulate a local populace.
But tucked into that was a steady stream of insidious message traffic. An organized criminal element was set on attacking allied forces, which included about 11,000 Marines and U.S. and international sailors floating off the North Carolina and Virginia coasts.
The scenario placed Marines in and around military forces were there to conduct crisis response missions in a simulated country on a crisis response mission in the wake of a disaster that led to internal instability. Marines participating in the exercise didn't know when, where or how they would be attacked.
"We modeled a virtual criminal cell and gave them some goals," said said Maj. Christian Fitzpatrick, ONR's tactical cyber special projects officer. "One of their goals during Bold Alligator was to purchase a strategic weapon system and use it to target ships off the North Carolina and Virginia coast."
For the first time, the Tactical Cyber Range allowed cyber Marines to coordinate with ground forces in a way that closely mimics the challenges they find downrange during distributed operations.
Until now, cyber Marines trained by sorting through communications emitted by a single source. It wasn't realistic.
"If Marines know right away where the cell is and the emitter, they can easily put their tactics right at that location," Fitzpatrick said. "The MOUT range is a more distributed environment eaffected by weather, buildings in the area — there were points in the exercise where Marines were not in the right position to hear some of the coordination the criminal cell was doing to purchase and launch the system."
Those challenges help identify gaps in the Marine Corps' cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.
Observers at Bold Alligator 14 were hoping Marines would be able to gather information and relay it to Marine commanders aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, who would who would then order hand tactical decisions to units on the ground. Often information didn't arrive in time or at all.
Speed is essential to be effective, Fitzpatrick said. It's no different than a call for close-air support or artillery.
The experience will help develop cyberspace training and readiness manuals, and eventually doctrine, to ensure the speedy collection and delivery of tactically relevant information intercepted by cyber Marines.
Ultimately, ONR is designing the Tactical Cyber Range to be modular, portable and user-friendly so that it will be a standard part of every unit's training arsenal. It will ould be wireless so that it can ould be quickly installed at any MOUT without permanent modification.
Many cyber operators have told Fitzpatrick that they go through intense initial training and then predeployment training. They use their skills downrange, but when they return home they begin to atrophy since they are not always part of daily duties or incorporated well into training.
"We don't want them going 3,00 miles away on deployment and seeing software for the first time. We want them using it every week," he said.
To further refine the system, ONR will hold another demonstration at Camp Lejeune in late January and another test in March that will incorporate nodes that simulate a cyber café.
Heads-up cyber glasses
During Bold Alligator, ONR also tested a new heads-up display for ground troops akin to military Google Glass.
The glasses are capable of displaying a wide array of information, including data from cameras and signals intelligence gear; facial recognition devices; and even health monitoring sensors already carried by Marines.
"As Marines conduct limited cyberspace operations at the tactical edge in support of the MAGTF, the amount of data available to them can be overwhelming and may detract from their battlespace situational awareness," reads an ONR factsheet. "Fusing real-time tactical data into a 'heads-up' display will be a critical enabler."
So as not to interfere with aiming weapons, the glasses can switch from left- to right- or dual-eye display.
The glasses could eventually alleviate concerns over Marines' ability to view and process information without compromising situational awareness. It's been a common talking point during the development of smartphone and tablet devices for the battlefield.
Those devices could allow Marine to communicate by text, call for close air support or casualty evacuations with pinpoint accuracy, or note important features and events on a map to prevent future patrols from walking unexpectedly into harm's way. But developers worry Marines will have their eyes on their electronic devices — a potentially deadly misstep.
ONR's new glasses could be the solution.
The next step in the project is the development of a weapon-mounted mouse so Marines can control the glasses display and handle data without taking their hands off their weapon.
New Cyber Concepts
But for commanders to exploit cyber capabilities on the battlefield, they must first comprehend them.
"If we are truly going to focus on cyber, we must start organizing tactical-level folks so they understand the cyber threat," Col. Gregory T. Breazile, the director of the Command and Control/Cyber and Electronic Warfare Integration Division at Combat Development and Integration Command, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia told Marine Corps Times in September.
Like the average person, most commanders are laymen when it comes to cyber capabilities. An officer from the infantry community, for example, who has never flown an aircraft still has a solid comprehension of how air supports an assault. When it comes to cyber, CD&I officials want to boost Marines' understanding to something like that of close-air support.
"It is changing the culture, so that [cyber] is part of the equation going in — not an afterthought," Breazile said.
Reorganizing operations staffs so that cyber specialists are readily available subject matter experts — able to chime in or be called on throughout the planning process — will help leverage cyber capabilities, whether to protect networks and communications, or attack the enemy's.
Hot Cyber Careers
Efforts to elevate the cyber and electronic warfare mission during tactical operations illustrate one facet of why cyber is among the fastest growing career fields offering healthy career prospects and generous financial incentives.
The five MOSs are challenging to keep adequately staffed for reasons including rigors of the job, high wash out rates at MOS-producing schools, or the draw of lucrative civilian employment with the latter particularly relevant to the cyber field. That translated into big perks for Marines.