Cyber warfare may seem like something from a science fiction movie. But attacks on our virtual infrastructure are a real threat; and a serious matter to our government and military.
To help train the next generation of cyber defenders, the Air Force Association established CyberPatriot -- The National High School Cyber Defense Competition.
In all, more than 1,000 teams participate in CyberPatriot, representing all 50 states, U.S. Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Europe and the Pacific, and Canada.
Cadets from the Colorado Springs Civil Air Patrol Cadet Squadron, known as the Wolf Pack, are one of those teams. In March, the Wolf Pack competed in CyberPatriot's national competition and won the top spot, bringing home the Commander-in-Chief's Cup.
The Wolf Pack's coach, Capt. Bill Blatchley, says the program is vital so that "our corporate and government and military systems are as secure as we can make them."
The Commissioner of CyberPatriot, Brigadier General Bernard Skoch, agrees with Blatchley. He told KRDO NewsChannel 13 that the United States is not doing well in educating our youth in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). CyberPatriot, he says, aims to give students hands-on experience and inspire them to pursue STEM careers. "If we're not doing well in preparing our youth to step into these careers and, at the same time, we're most dependent on the fields that those careers feed, we have a serious issue that we need to address," Skoch said.
Members of the Wolf Pack say the program has inspired them to pursue cyber defense careers. "We all use some sort of technological device" said Cadet 1st Lt. Thomas Jessop. "If you have sensitive information on there and you don't know how to defend it and you lose it, it is your fault. But I don't want to see that happen and that's why I'm going into cyber defense."
Cadet Senior Master Sgt. Chris Vasquez, the team's captain, also envisions a future career. "You know that there's a job opening for you once you're out of high school or once you're out of college because everybody's looking for somebody to protect their network," Vasquez said.
While training for competition, the cadets are presented with virtual attacks, then use their knowledge to figure out how to correct the problems.
Blatchley says the attacks that the cadets learn to defend have real-world implications. "There are many attacks that happen on a daily basis," Blatchley said. "From credit cards to even potentially power grids and hospitals and a wide variety of different places. You don't know where the attack might come."
The cadets realize the dangers too.
"There's an infinite amount of possibilities for dangers. I mean, it could be anything from spying on other countries with their own satellites, to stealing bank account information, to launching a different country's own nuclear missiles," said Cadet Master Sgt. Kyal Lanum.
Blachley says that winning the national competition was a proud moment for him; but what makes him prouder is how much the cadets have grown. "One of the things that sets this program apart is that you're not focused on yourself or your own team, you're focused on serving others," Blatchley said. He says the program has instilled leadership skills in the cadets that extend beyond the scope of CyberPatriot.
Vasquez agrees that he has learned to be a leader, but also says he chose to participate because he "couldn't ask for a better time."
The future for these cadets is bright. "There are scholarship and internship opportunities that abound for young men and women that have basic knowledge and that are going into this field," Blatchley said.
CyberPatriot is open to all high schools, Civil Air Patrol Units, JROTC Units, and accredited home school programs around the country. Registration is now open on CyberPatriot's website. CyberPatriot is presented by Northrop Grumman Foundation with founding partners SAIC and CIAS.