BEEBE, Ark. - Fatigued but determined, a squad of new Soldiers was within a football field of the final objective — a radio tower they needed to take out.
The newbies had already cleared buildings of enemy combatants and battled through an ambush. Eliminating the tower, however, seemed an impossible objective.
Channeling lessons taught by their platoon leaders, they charged down a street and scaled a small hill — the radio tower was no more.
It also wasn’t real.
This scenario was a simulated battlefield program the student cyberwarriors accessed from laptops inside an Arkansas State University-Beebe classroom April 28. It was all made possible by Arkansas Army National Guard members.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gregory Backus, an information protection technician with the Army National Guard's Professional Education Center, said the cyber awareness event — named Interactive War Games — did more than just satisfy the amusement of video game-loving students.
"Cyber encompasses just about every activity or environment in the military or civilian world, especially during the current pandemic," Backus said. He called recruiting events like this "a great opportunity" for the Guard to generate more awareness about the career field.
For Army Sgt. Christopher Marra, an information technology specialist at PEC, the event also underscored an even greater need.
"The future of warfare is in cyberspace," he said, adding that cyberattacks could subject Soldiers on the ground to "rolling blackouts, poison water, hacked communications systems, or the enemy always knowing where they are."
Army Staff Sgt. Robin Nunn, an IT instructor at PEC, echoed those sentiments.
The event, he said, is a "single step in the right direction" to "entice people to get into this field and stay in it."
That field boasts nearly 4,000 Army and Air National Guard personnel serving in 59 Department of Defense cyber units in 40 states. In 2020, 290 Guard cyber professionals from 15 states responded to 33 reported state cyber incidents.
Knowing that cyber incidents are not confined to the homeland, Nunn and Marra created a battlefield environment in the simulator to train cyber operators for tactical integration with combat teams.
"Our end-state goal was to create a program where cyber protection teams can operate in the battlefield and establish those relationships between line units," Marra said.
But for Interactive War Games, it would be student participants — broken into two opposing teams led by Nunn and Marra — who'd be operating in the cyber battlespace.
"Once everyone started playing, we started providing direction, keeping them in line and on track," Nunn said.
It was the teamwork of students, however, that ultimately decided their fate during the games.
"The students learned to confront all these different things [on the battlefield] as it unfolded in front of them in real-time," he said. "That's part of the experience: You don't know what's coming and you have to make split-second decisions on the fly while executing a plan that was hashed out in three minutes."
Though the event didn't cover how the Guard responds to cyber incidents, it did showcase the power of a cyberattack. As the day progressed, Backus took on the role of a hacker — unbeknownst to the students.
"I essentially accessed their networks, manipulating their playing environments with the intent to disrupt and cause some problems," said Backus. Those complications came in the form of a "slow, degraded network where the students were no longer able to quickly move through the system, not able to aim properly or move fast enough," he said.
Marra said he couldn't help but notice the students' surprise when they learned their computer issues stemmed from hostile activity within the room.
"A lot of people were fascinated by what Chief Backus could do," Marra said. "It was a big reveal in the end, and it got a lot of the students interested very quickly" in the National Guard and cyber.
Seeing students relish the possibilities of the career field wasn't the only positive aspect Backus observed. He recalled a student who was initially very reserved and had declared she had no leadership attributes.
"We just encouraged her to give it a try," Backus said. "By the end of the day, she put on the survey she is 'absolutely a leader,' and the experience basically validated some internal things for her."
He said other students had similar experiences. Since the event, one student enlisted in the Army Guard, and four others committed to future enlistments.
Those developments, Backus said, were sparked by Interactive War Games.
"Joining the military might not just be about running on the front lines," he added. "It might be as a cyber defender — somebody who's behind the scenes."