Cyber and the National Guard: A Strategic Trust

Threat drives technology. This has been the case for the U.S. military for the last 150 years. One could say that forecasting what the next threat will be is actually what drives technology. Two prime examples of this are coastal and air defenses of the United States in the beginning and middle of the 20th century. Now we are facing an ever-developing threat: cyber attacks against our nation’s infrastructure. These are becoming more invasive and dangerous to our national security, given how much a modern military relies on cyberspace for communication and command and control. The recent high-profile attacks on the Office of Personnel Management create a stark picture of how vulnerable our infrastructure is.

How can the U.S. military respond to this threat in an era of cost controls and force reduction? National Guard Bureau Chief, General Frank Grass, has an answer: the National Guard. Gen. Grass announced that National Guard cyber teams will operate in each of the ten Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions. This is the first step towards what could be a Guard-led initiative to protect our nation’s cyber infrastructure. It is the perfect response to such a threat and fits into the Guard’s history of fulfilling a defense role in the Contiguous United States (CONUS) over the past hundred years.

Protecting the Shores

In 1885, President Grover Cleveland was concerned about the state of the seacoast defenses of the United States and appointed a joint Army, Navy, and civilian board to inspect them. It was led by Secretary of War William Endicott. The results of the inspection were alarming: the forts were no match for the high-powered arsenal of guns that were now common to naval forces of the time. The Endicott Board’s findings began a flurry of new coastal construction that resulted in a new type of fixed fortification across the U.S. Low profile batteries mounting only a few guns replaced the larger casemate-style forts that held batteries of guns in tiers. These new forts were designed to provide long-range protection with 12-inch guns and shore defenses consisting of rapid-fire lower caliber guns over-watching minefields in the waterways. Over time, larger guns (14 inch and 16 inch) were incorporated to enable the defenders to reach out and touch an enemy ship at a distance of over twenty miles.

12-inch gun at Fort Preble, Maine (Photo courtesy the Joel Eastman Collection)

To man these new defenses, the artillery arm of the Army was broken up into two types: field and coast. Coast artillery batteries were created in 1901 and the Coast Artillery Corps was established in 1924 to allow full regiments to be recruited. However, the sheer size and breadth of the U.S. coastline meant that there were simply more forts than the 85,000-man U.S. Army could cover. Therefore, the War Department began authorizing regiments of Coast Artillery for the National Guard.

The use of National Guard regiments allowed more of the Regular Army Coast Artillery regiments to be posted at locations outside the continental United States.

It was a decision made out of necessity and it made practical sense: Guardsmen who lived near coastal cities with harbor defenses could quickly respond in a time of crisis and train in the forts in times of peace. At the Coast Artillery’s height in the 1930's, there were thirty-five National Guard regiments of Coast Artillery, compared to fourteen Regular regiments. National Guard, Regular Army, and Navy forces conducted joint exercises from 1903–1935, building respect and trust between the services and components. The use of National Guard regiments allowed more of the Regular Army Coast Artillery regiments to be posted at locations outside the continental United States (OCONUS).

Twin 14 inch guns of the defenses at Fort Drum, Philippines (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

At the outbreak of World War II, the National Guard regiments were all activated and manned the CONUS installations while the Regular regiments served OCONUS. The draft allowed for dozens more Coast Artillery regiments to be formed. But by now they were all obsolete.

Threat from the Air

The bombs dropped from the first Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor sounded the death knell for Coast Artillery. The events of World War II further demonstrated that the battleship was no longer the most effective threat to the United States. Aircraft, especially long range bombers, were the main threat to the post-World War II U.S. The Coast Artillery Corps was deactivated in 1950. The National Guard Coast Artillery regiments were converted to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) battalions.

Guardsmen conducting maintenance on their M42 “Duster” mobile anti-aircraft piece (Author’s collection)

Unlike the other National Guard units that were only authorized to fill their ranks to 70–80% of their assigned strength, National Guard AAA units were always at 100% fill and had to be ready to respond to a moment’s notice. Full-time technicians manned battery sites and upon an alert, all members of the battery were to report for immediate service. For the first time, state units were being assigned a full-time Federal mission.

The Guardsmen had proved more than equal to the task of mastering technologically advanced weaponry and being available at any moment in a crisis.

With the advent of surface-to-air missiles in the late 1950s, Guardsmen became an integral part of the NIKE missile system covering the U.S. At the program’s peak in the 1960s, Guardsmen manned forty-eight of the 112 NIKE missile sites in CONUS.

But threats develop, and by the 1970s, the threat of Soviet bombers declined in comparison to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1974, the last National Guard NIKE missile units were inactivated. The Guardsmen had proved more than equal to the task of mastering technologically advanced weaponry and being available at any moment in a crisis.

Threat from Cyberspace

Visit the parking lots of most National Guard armories and you will see the usual mix of trucks, economy cars, and beaters that you would expect to see in any parking lot. But there is an armory in California that instead boasts an assortment of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Porsche vehicles. The soldiers and airmen look a lot like the technicians that inhabit Silicon Valley. The hook: want to hack legally for your country?

Global threats can be met locally.

The cyber units of the National Guard offer civilians who work in IT the opportunity to wear the uniform while maintaining their careers. In addition, they can hone their skills in a unique environment not offered in many civilian sectors. They can respond to a crisis at a moment’s notice without needing to go through any deployment training or travel. Global threats can be met locally. In this case, National Guard units are more cost-effective than Regular Army units. Cyber and the National Guard are a perfect fit. It remains to be seen if the Department of Defense will take full advantage of this asset.

Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. He has done one tour in Afghanistan as part of U.S. and Coalition retrograde operations. With a BA and an MA in history, he currently serves as a full-time Army Historian. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Members of the Ohio National Guard Computer Network Defense Team conduct cyberdefense operations during exercise Cyber Shield 2015 at Camp Atterbury, Ind., March 20. The exercise was designed to develop the defensive skills of soldiers and airmen tasked with securing their organizations’ computer networks. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. George Davis