New National Guard Cyber Units May Help Retain Troops
Inside a darkened armory at the Air National Guard Station in Van Nuys, Calif., – in a space the size of a gymnasium — there's a horseshoe of computers. A projector casts an image on a concrete wall. It's a real time cyberattack map.
"These are attacks that are happening across the globe, back and forth cyberattacks," says Airman Christopher Watkins. "As you can see, we kind of get attacked a lot."
From outside the gate, the station is very low key. There are no Humvees, no big radar installations or Blackhawks baking in the California sun, just a few nondescript buildings. Inside, it is the front lines of cyber defense, but even this close to Hollywood, the training center doesn't match the movies.
"It's kind of hard to imagine what's happening in the digital world. Some people think it's like a magic black voodoo box that just does things," Watkins says. "It's really not. There's a lot of work behind it and a lot more work that goes behind defending it," Watkins says.
The Pentagon is giving the National Guard a new mission to help defend government systems from cyberattacks at military bases and government offices located across the country. It's standing up new cyber protection units — pulling from a handful of states, including Indiana and California – to support cyber defense missions already underway in the active duty army.
"So really what the focus of these teams will be is to protect the Department of Defense information network," says Col. Tim Thombleson, who commands the Indiana unit. "These teams in essence can work with a lot of data if somebody is trying to cause harm to our information network."
The Pentagon will stand up a total of 10 National Guard cyber protection units between now and 2018. They'll aim to protect military networks — and civilian ones, since the Guard also works for state governors. In Indiana, the unit will advise on ways to protect data — everything from tax returns to drivers' licenses.
The California Guard has been doing similar work on its own for a couple of years.
Col. Steve Butow, vice chief of staff for the California Military Department, says one reason his state was selected is because so many California guardsmen hold down full-time jobs in the tech community.
"It's really private industry that's on the front lines of the cyber war, not the U.S. government," he says.
The Guard is hoping the cyber units will help keep troops with IT skills from leaving the service.
People like Tech Sgt. David Follin, who works full time in IT at Boeing.
But in the middle of the week recently, he was in uniform at the California Air National Guard station in Van Nuys getting extra training with the cyber unit.
"I love the Guard. It's kind of a family away from family," Follin says. "We're very close knit. You're helping your country. You're serving your nation. It feels right."
The Guard is hoping that the new cyber unit means Follin won't have to choose between patriotism and his career.
NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. This story is part of that project, we're calling "Back at Base."
Copyright 2021 KPBS Radio. To see more, visit KPBS Radio.