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In Remote Southern California Desert, U.S. Army Tests Advanced Cyber Weapons


In the remote southern California desert, Army soldiers are testing advanced new cyberweapons. The question is - are they too complicated to use on top of all the other equipment soldiers need in the field? Steve Walsh with member station KPBS spent a couple of days at Fort Irwin.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Most soldiers spend some time at Fort Irwin. The National Training Center in the California desert is the size of Rhode Island. It's the only place large enough to train a brigade of 5,000 soldiers. It's where trainers can show troops the weapons they might face in combat.

GEORGE PURYEAR: Not only be able to say it - right? - be able to demonstrate those effects.

WALSH: Captain George Puryear is one of the trainers. They're the bad guys. It's their job to throw everything they can at the units training at Fort Irwin. He points to a map to show how that now includes cyberattacks and electronic warfare.

PURYEAR: About training day two, they attacked through the central corridor.

WALSH: He tells how the trainers used some of those new tools to stop a tank assault.

PURYEAR: And as those tanks came through, we had a jammer.

WALSH: That electronic jammer can disrupt signals like radio and wireless. It's a technology the Russians have reportedly used to great effect in Ukraine. Soldiers in the training exercise with their communications jammed were forced to get out of their tanks to figure out what was going on.

PURYEAR: And these tanks had to stop, dismount, get out of their protection, reduce their mobility.

WALSH: The result was catastrophic. Puryear's unit rained down simulated fire. Eventually it was game over. It was just a drill, but it's a valuable lesson for these troops and for the Army as a whole. Puryear says they've already learned not to weigh down busy commanders with a bunch of tech talk. If you do, they'll tell you...

PURYEAR: Hey, the amount of mental bandwidth I have to commit to this just isn't worth it, right?

WALSH: Instead, trainers show them what these things can do. Up until now, the Army has conducted most of its cyberwarfare operations from air-conditioned buildings in Virginia far from the battlefield. In the Mojave Desert, they're testing how much of this know-how can be put in the hands of troops on the ground who may have to fight someone with intense cybercapabilities like the Russians or Chinese. A lot of this is under wraps. One major tied to Army Cyber Command talked to me but wouldn't let me use her name. She described an exercise where trainers used cybertools to trick a group of officers that their commander wanted to meet them at a particular spot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What ended up happening was part of the unit leadership went to that location and they were actually attacked by the OPFOR.

WALSH: Fort Irwin's commander, Brigadier General Jeff Broadwater, knows how to make an entrance, arriving by Blackhawk on a mesa overlooking one of the training villages. He says the Pentagon's concentration on cyberwarfare is relatively new. The U.S. spent more than a decade fighting wars against opponents who didn't use these weapons.

JEFF BROADWATER: The next place that we go to fight or that we need to be ready to fight is - we don't know where that's going to be. But we also know that the enemy that we face will have developed some lessons that they've learned as we've been executing in Iraq.

WALSH: Looking down from a windswept ridge, Brigadier General J.P. McGee watches another part of the exercise. Down below, a tank commander is trying to take over one of the villages.

J P MCGEE: What you can't see right now - we have cyberactivities that are going on inside the networks that exist within that city where they've been able to come in from a distance, exploit into those networks and then take over devices within that city.

WALSH: McGee served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, he took over as the operations commander for Army Cyber Command. At Irwin, they're tinkering with how to make this relationship with front-line troops work.

MCGEE: Every iteration of this gets better as we work through it. And so we have changed the size and composition of them. We've changed the equipment that we bring out here.

WALSH: In the exercises, teams of cyber experts move with troops along the front lines. Once the exercises are over at the end of the month, Cyber Command will have to decide whether this is the way the Army will start to fight for real. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.