John Rollinson: West
Point Team Wins Cyber Defense Title
May 1, 2011
West Point cadets tested their cyber defense skills against veteran
hackers from the National Security Agency and emerged victorious.
West Point cadets tested
their cyber defense skills against veteran hackers from the National
Security Agency and emerged victorious. The three-day 2011 Cyber Defense
Exercise concluded April 22, 2011, giving the U.S. Military Academy its
sixth win since the competition began in 2001, including a trifecta from
2007-09. Last year, the U.S. Naval Academy earned the title.
The three-day 2011 Cyber Defense Exercise concluded April 22, 2011,
giving the U.S. Military Academy its sixth win since the competition
began in 2001. Thirty-eight Class of 2011 cadets participated in the
exercise, along with two faculty advisors and numerous support
personnel. The senior cadets built the network, managed it and performed
the day-to-day operations.
The exercise was established by West Point with collaboration and
support from the NSA and Department of Defense to teach students how to
protect and defend the nation's information systems. All five service
academies participated, as well as the Naval Postgraduate School, the
Air Force Institute of Technology and the Royal Military College of
"It's entirely a defensive operation on our part," said Class of 2011
Cadet Hunter Hutcheson, the team's public affairs representative. "So
we're learning how to defend the network. West Point has one of the most
robust cyber educational programs of all the service academies. Cadets
routinely are sent to NSA to practice these skills during summer
Some Class of 2012 cadets participated in the latter stages to perform
forensic analysis of the exercise.
"They'll figure out which machines were compromised by the NSA and
create a detailed analysis of the tools used against us as a sort of
lessons learned," Hutcheson said. "So next year when they enter the
competition, they'll have more experience of what they can expect from
The cadets could not monitor the systems between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m. each
day, as that was when their NSA opponents would launch their offensive.
The mornings would often find the West Point team on damage control duty
from the overnight attacks. This was accomplished by ensuring the
services were functioning properly and activity coming into the network
from the NSA Red Team was stopped and any threats mitigated as they
The exercise involved long-hour shifts for the cadets, always on the
defensive against NSA. Ample amounts of caffeinated beverages and
high-calorie snacks were consumed to offset the periods of inactivity
and fueled them when they needed to respond fast.
"It's definitely a high-stress exercise," Hutcheson said. "There are
periods of boredom throughout the day, but leading up to the exercise
there were numerous times cadets worked late nights and sometimes until
early into the morning. Throughout the exercise there are also periods
of intense activity. Waiting for an opponent to attack can be a
The cadets worked in teams, performing various functions like monitoring
software and email/chat services. Class of 2011 Cadet John Rollinson led
the network security monitoring team.
"Basically I'm logging and analyzing all the traffic flowing across our
network for things that don't fit the standard usage," Rollinson said.
Hutcheson said this USMA team, in the way they've prepared for and
executed the exercise, may be one of the best in several years.
Rollinson was confident the team could beat the other academies.
"We have cadets on our team who are very knowledgeable about what
they're doing," Rollinson said. "We have (Cadet) James McColl, who's a
mastermind on the computers; we have (Cadet) Robert Frost, who's very
good at understanding exploits, and (Cadet) Duncan Michel does a great
job of managing and distributing who's looking where on the system."
Traditionally, the NSA team will conclude the exercise by launching an
onslaught upon the teams; basically, unleashing a devastating attack for
which there is no preparation.
job is to make sure our network is as secure as possible and the
services are all up and running so when that attack happens we have
monitoring tools running and all cadets at their stations," Hutcheson
said. "Of course, we fully expect this attack, but we didn't talk about
it. We talk about winning."
To call this a game would be farthest from the truth for this team.
"With the growing importance of cyber defense in the Department of
Defense and the private industry, we realize this is no game," Hutcheson
said. "This is real. We're calling it a demonstration of Army excellence
and this is our opportunity to show the NSA and the other academies that
we're prepared and we're developing graduates fully capable of operating
in this environment."