We Took West Point Cadets to (Cyber) War


Several months ago, we — members of the Army Cyber Institute and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental — built and wrote about a cyber-electromagnetic tool lovingly referred to as the “cyber capability rifle” (CCR) for about $150 and ten man-hours. Shortly after its debut at Cyber Talks, we tested it against a network-connected home automation system to open an electronic door lock and once again to take over the control system of a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drone. Each demonstration served as a glimpse into what the future of war might look like and the need to increase the military’s pace of innovation, particularly at the tactical level. In the true spirit of open innovation, we iterated a few times on the idea, producing more robust prototypes and better interfaces at each turn. The true test, however, would occur during the tool’s integration into West Point cadet infantry platoon maneuver training, which we completed last week.

Over a thousand cadets participate in West Point’s annual Cadet Leader Development Training (CLDT), a summer training event designed to immerse rising junior and senior cadets in dynamic environments, testing their leadership abilities under stress, how they can employ tactical problem-solving skills and, most importantly, how they adjust to an ever-changing battlefield environment. In all, about 18 cadet “infantry” platoons conducted the cyber-enhanced training mission, or “lane,” against a formidable and tech-savvy opposing force (OPFOR) who was equipped with COTS drones employed as mobile surveillance and mobile munitions platforms. Below is a brief synopsis of the tactical scenario that we gave the cadets before they conducted their training lane’s mission:

The OPFOR, composed of about eight armed individuals, has established a command post in a building in a small village surrounded by a forest. The OPFOR also possess one small commercial drone that they’re using as a mobile surveillance platform and mobile munitions – think IED – platform to provide early warning. The task for the cadet platoon is seize the village, including the command post, but first they’ll have to neutralize that commercial drone before they initiate their assault. To do this, a cyber-electromagnetic operator with CCR was attached to the cadet infantry platoon in order to enable the neutralization of the commercial drone.

Here are a few lessons we learned:

Thirst for Realism and Innovative Methods of Home Station Training

The exposure of this one training lane at Cadet Summer Training was quite amazing, with personnel from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, ROTC cadre, Army Special Forces, and the West Point academic and athletic departments supporting the 12-day training exercise. The feedback highlighted for us a thirst for training that reflected a realistic threat. After going after an enemy that often provided little technical sophistication as a threat in Afghanistan, active duty combat soldiers were happy to see micro drones being used in the environment, an occurrence that is increasingly common in true combat scenarios in places like the Ukraine and the Levant. As the U.S. Army rapidly increases its investment in such tech, it only makes sense to train our leaders to defend against it as well. Our hats are off to all of those who provided support, including West Point’s Department of Military Instruction and the Army Cyber Institute. We read a lot about how the defense bureaucracy kills the innovative spirit (just search War on the Rocks for “innovation” and read about efforts to stop this trend), but at West Point, that spirit is being nurtured and lauded as a critical component of a healthy military force.

Cyber as a Team Sport for the Win

Cyber-electromagnetic capabilities, which exist in both cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, are in high demand for good reason. In the Army, cyber and electronic warfare are often viewed as complementary if not synonymous and we use the term “cyber” to encompass both. Cyber needs to deliver in a big way, specifically in its ability to enable freedom of maneuver for ground force commanders. Battles might be ongoing in cyberspace currently, but the Army will continue to need to fight for and hold ground, and cyber can be a major enabler in that endeavor. Currently, the Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and the Army’s 780th MI Brigade Cyber Support to Corps and Below Detachment are well on their way to providing cyber realism and effects to as much Army training, and institutional education as possible. Cyber pilot rotations at the Army’s combat training centers are ongoing and increasing in complexity and challenge with each iteration. The Cyber Center of Excellence is also working to add a cyber component to educational pipelines, as well as to update the Direct Action Threat Environment scenario so that the combat Training centers have a justified reason to request new tech to manifest a realistic, modern near-peer threat.

All of these initiatives and parallel efforts are part of a strategic plan to help combat leaders understand the technological world we live in, increasing awareness as to the vulnerabilities of their own systems, while displaying some realistic cyber effects. All combat commanders understand that field artillery is an enabler, and are expected to understand its employment. So too is cyber, an effect at the commander’s disposal that should be equally understood and utilized.

The Dawn of the Amazon Primitization of Warfare

Gen. Omar Bradley is often attributed to the quote “amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics.” With his words in mind, we remember times in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan where general, let alone niche, products and services required a highly expensive, often obstinate supply chain to generate combat power. Today, seemingly innocuous advanced technology items can be obtained rapidly through highly efficient logistics distribution centers, similar to Amazon fulfillment centers, and repurposed as a means for military ends. The vast majority of the equipment we used in this training were bought via Amazon Prime either as completed products or product components.

Cyber Electromagnetic Tools Make Great Area Target Weapons

Most of the time the CCR operators were sitting in a support-by-fire position overwatching the targeted compound before the assault began. In many of those cases, the CCR operators could not see the targeted drone, but luckily one of the cadets in our position could. With a simple distance and direction given to us by the cadets, we could point the CCR at the unseen drone, engage it, and successfully neutralize it with our cyber-electromagnetic effects. In the military, we call that an area weapon, which, like a machine gun, engages a larger target area. This is the opposite of a point weapon, which, like a sniper rifle, is intended to more precisely engage a smaller target area. Given the nature of this type of tool, it is also worthwhile to carefully think about the physical employment, weather conditions, and potential collateral effects, just as one would with a lethal area weapon.

Commercial Drone Use (Especially in Dense Urban Areas) Is Going to Pose a Big Problem

We did our work in the quaint forests of the Hudson Highlands. The actual compound the cadets assaulted was a small village in a clearing composed of about seven huts including one two-story building. Even though it was a relatively small objective, it was extremely challenging to identify the physical signature of the dynamic drone let alone engage it in a timely manner prior to the cadets’ assault. Finding and countering commercial drones, both kinetically and non-kinetically, in dense urban areas with all the multi-elevation deadspace, complex infrastructure, and human saturation could significantly hamper a ground force’s freedom of maneuver. It stands to reason that a future scenario will be comprised of numerous drones both on the ground and in the air — further complicating the battlespace.

Wrapping it Up  

We’re not in the counter-drone business, but we believe that the image of a tactically employed non-kinetic tool downing a commercial drone helped West Point cadets visualize a future battlefield transformed by disruptive tactical technology and its strategic value. We hope that it makes these future Army leaders think about how cyber and electronic warfare fit into tactical operations, just as exposure to any other enabler would. Additionally, the technical principles for creating the CCR are surprisingly accessible, requiring only a foundational understanding of wireless networks and scripting, skills which every West Point cadet is exposed to during his or her 47-month experience. A full tutorial on both the creation of a DIY long-range antenna and the scripting required for this particular counter-drone effect can be found in on Make: Magazine’s website.

There are additional considerations for using this type of tool in operations. Typical cyber effects are very hard to manifest in a kinetic-physical way, which further muddies their employment in combat. By having a quadcopter fall from the sky midflight from a height of 20 feet and crash into the grass at the push of a trigger attached to a Raspberry Pi, we have shown the power of open source cyber tool development. Realities are changing; our ubiquitously networked lives and devices provide us with great value and also great vulnerability if not carefully secured.

Next May, about a thousand new lieutenants will be commissioned from West Point, and we hope that we have helped to expand their minds in terms of the tactical challenges, and unseen forces that will alter and shape future battlefields. We also hope to create a demand signal that ensures the growth, investment, and relevance of Army Cyber and Electronic Warfare forces. Hopefully, as soldiers encounter problems throughout the Army, now they will think to ask for an enabler, or for a cyber effect on an enemy system or compound. By increasing demand for Cyber and Electronic Warfare effects, it is our hope that the current challenges with policy and authority will be forced into the forefront for clear resolution. Our Army must adapt and be prepared to operate in an environment where the widespread utilization of cyber tools and electronic warfare capabilities is prolific and commonplace.


Captains Brent Chapman, Matt Hutchison, and Erick Waage are cyber officers and members of the Defense Innovation Unit and Army Cyber Institute. Collectively, they have served over half a dozen deployments overseas in cyber-related positions supporting both conventional and special operations forces. Further coverage of the training can be found here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Army Cyber Command, the Department of the Army, U.S. Cyber Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Note that the Cyber Capability Rifle is currently not an Army Program of Record.

Image: West Point