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For the Corps, It Is Game On

The U.S. Marine Corps looks to a gaming-inspired course to train the next generation of cyber warriors.

Some U.S. Marine Corps cyber warriors are playing their way toward proficiency. The Corps’ Delta Company, Communication Training Battalion, has turned to gamification to foster a new cyber instruction method that is becoming much more than fun and games. Retooling teaching techniques gave rise to what is dubbed “2-3-6 training” to integrate the intelligence directorate with operations and communications, which in military parlance are designated by the numerals 2, 3 and 6.

The lessons are as entertaining as they are instructive and have proved quite alluring to today’s digital natives. The Communication Training Battalion’s (CTB’s) approach differs from other cyber planning units because 2-3-6 focuses on staff integration and is designed around games that simulate tactical operational environments.

Operating on a shoestring budget, Delta Company developed and delivered its gaming-inspired cyber planner course over the past year. The company, made up of Marine Corps captains, used action research methods, or learning by doing, and the general research method called grounded theory to study the effects of gaming on how students learn. Overall, studies show that gamification improves student comprehension and retention of instructive materials. In addition, applying gaming knowledge teaches students to independently solve problems.

The course recasts traditional lectures on real-world security events, such as embassy evacuations, malware outbreaks and open-source cyberspace-enabled information leaks, with lessons presented in the form of games. Students learn critical cyber lexicon and integration tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) while they play—literally. They also build skill sets, gain experience and become familiar with the language required to quickly integrate cyber across the warfighting functions.

Learning the language is key because this is where warfighting functions are challenged, particularly when fighting alongside coalition partners. Adopting common terminology decreases planning time and demystifies the integration process the U.S. Cyber Command and Strategic Command struggle with today.

Students who have taken the course integrate the language better when attacking the same problem set as their peers who have not taken the course but worked for multiple years in operational cyber. Gaming helped increase use of cyber lexicon by more than 50 percent compared with students who did not use gaming interfaces or staff simulations. The CTB students also communicate better with commanders about how to use cyber compared with others who only understand how to make cyber work.

It is imperative to get the language right from the beginning. Experts contend that when doctrine writers must haggle over wording before tackling harder tasks, this hampers planning progress. Changes in wording might appear to be subtle but present significant distinctions.

In addition to language, the course teaches students, at the unclassified level, how to be ethical hackers and how cyberspace capabilities affect threat actors, systems and enablers. A lot of role-playing is involved. Students learn to integrate cyberspace effects by treating them as nonkinetic munitions and cyber combat mission teams as firing batteries.

To add realism to the gamified course, the CTB partnered with other training organizations, such as the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course (IOC) and the Defense Department’s National Cyber Range. These partnerships force comprehensive cyber event planning, says Maj. George Flynn, USMC, former IOC director. “Integrating cyber effects through simulations and games helps future infantry officers understand that they are going into environments where the adversary will use traditional squad tactics alongside information technologies to disrupt and control the initiative in a fight,” Maj. Flynn explains. “Integrating with Delta Company’s cyber planner [course] teaches tomorrow’s leaders what is in the realm of the possible in the 2025 operational environment.”

The Cyber Range provides a critical force multiplier for the CTB because it offers teams a persistent yet flexible environment that can be changed. Each time students run the course, controllers add new targets, capabilities and challenges that improve training.

The course style evokes interactive movie games, such as the 1980s arcade game series “Dragon’s Lair,” to enhance the 42-hour block of instruction. Students develop comprehensive military operational plans that integrate cyberspace effects, such as preplanned fire elements from the joint targeting process used by the military services and other federal agencies that perform intelligence-based targeting functions, with the intelligence preparation of the battlespace and the Marine Corps Planning Process (MCPP). Students learn to leverage the geographic combatant commands’ targeting, cyberspace and spectrum authorities when developing game plans. They also learn to pre-coordinate authorities that have long lead times, integrate capabilities, project power through cyberspace and understand the target intelligence required to secure cyber systems.

“We need 2-3-6 in order to solve problems in the ‘new normal’ security environment and the 2025 operational environment,” says Capt. William Hochrine, USMC, course coordinator for the CTB’s Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Advanced Communications Officer Course (ACOC). “Games based on current challenges provide the relevance that transforms traditional training into meaningful learning that can be transferred to other contexts and used to integrate 2-3-6 cyberspace efforts.”

The course has been delivered to fleet units in a mobile training team format. “I’m enthusiastic today because I’ve been asking in a lot of places for something like this, and today’s class was the first credible response,” says Col. William Vivian, USMC, commanding officer of the 7th Marine Regiment, in an email to the CTB leaders. “[Other training organizations] are undershooting the mark, in my opinion. Your Marines provided a useful framework for getting after this, coupled with practical tips on how to translate into action.”

The future of the course lies in a cyber leader training concept called Cylon Raider. This three- to four-phase, multisite cyber integration leadership program would teach tomorrow’s leaders to fight in complex operational environments using kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities. Much like the Army’s Ranger School teaches leadership and problem-solving skills on today’s battlefields, Cylon Raider would teach technically enabled warfighters how to think and innovate in the cybersecurity environment. The training would take place at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base in California, where communication and cybersecurity personnel now train.

A hallmark of the CTB course is to shift the focus from the individual to team performance. Emerging cyber-enabled teams must train to fight together and go for a team win.

The gamified version of the CTB’s cyber planner course is one of a few collective training venues that forces students to solve real world-inspired problems using cyberspace effects. The course will ensure that tomorrow’s leaders understand how cyber can be used to generate advantage for a commander and win tomorrow’s conflicts.

All images courtesy of Capt. Terry Traylor, USMC

Capt. Terry Traylor, USMC, is with Delta Company, Communication Training Battalion, at the U.S. Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School. The views expressed here are his alone.

Reprinted from SIGNAL Online, Oct 2016 with permission of Signal Magazine. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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