DRAPER — A squad of Utah soldiers is deploying to aid in the fight against digital warfare.
A team of 18 Utah National Guard members from the 174th Cyber Protection unit is scheduled to deploy to Fort Meade, Maryland, to conduct cyber protection operations as Task Force Echo III. The soldiers participated in a deployment ceremony Wednesday morning.
The task force will travel to Fort Meade this week where it will conduct in-processing and initial training prior to federalization on Feb. 2.
"Our mission is to engineer, install, operate, and maintain critical network infrastructure for U.S. Army Cyber Command," said Capt. Kylie Boyle, the senior officer in charge of the Utah team.
"This (cyber) environment is dynamically evolving," he said. "Being able to take everything we have been training for these last three years and operationalize it into something that will actually be used to protect critical infrastructure is very exciting."
The task force is made up of soldiers from a dozen states working collectively under the 126th Cyber Battalion based in Massachusetts. The task force will be deployed for 400 days, which is longer than the normal one year or less that most units deploy for, explained Utah National Guard public affairs specialist Sgt. Nathaniel Free.
The extended deployment helps to maintain continuity and stability within the highly technical cyber teams, he said.
"Basically, they are going to be protecting the United States on the cyber front," Free said. "These soldiers have been training for the past three years in preparation for this deployment. They are excited to finally put that training to use to protect the American people."
He said while Fort Meade may not be a battlefield in the Middle East, this deployment is just as important because they will be defending U.S. soil.
The team will be supporting defense efforts currently underway in Afghanistan that focus on targets on the U.S. mainland, Free noted.
"This is part three of an ongoing mission task force, where our soldiers will be actively defending the U.S. from cyberattack," he said.
Boyle said this deployment will be different from previous travel assignments due to "the geography of it."
"It's the first time we're truly able to do something in the cyber realm where we are working remotely," he said. "Having been in the military now for 15 years, you are seeing that evolution of always being forward deployed to hostile theaters. Now we have the ability to work within the states."
He is "very optimistic" about the deployment due to the strong multistate team.
"The past three years I've been associated with U.S. Cyber Command as well as prior to that I was with U.S. Special Operations," Boyle explained. "To see the importance of the infrastructure, the network connectivity and how potentially vulnerable it can be … that's really the driving force and what makes this (assignment) fun."
"And it changes, it does develop and becomes more complex exponentially," he added. "Land-based warfare doesn't necessarily do that, but at the end of the day (we're) still working toward that same overarching goal."
He said the challenges on this assignment are going to be many of the same things soldiers deal with when they are deployed overseas.
"Hopefully, the power doesn't go out," he said. "We've got good backup generators."
Speaking about how this deployment might be different for families at home, he said the relative proximity will help alleviate some of the pressure.
"Honestly its good and bad because they know in all honesty dad is only six hours away on a plane trip," Boyle said. "But it's nice and with FaceTime you're able to connect a lot. They'll come out when they can and I'll fly home when I can."
Generally, however, this assignment presents many of the same issues overseas duties do.
"Making sure things are good with the families back home. Ensuring you're trying to take care of all of your soldiers while you are there," he said. "I don't see it being different than any other deployment in that facet."
Boyle has spent two of the past three years away on deployment, as well as many more hours studying and training when at home in Utah, which has been difficult on his family.Comment on this story
"On top of all of that, to be gone for another year, that's when the little ones cling on a little bit more. They're tired of dad's trips," he said. "It's been full spectrum. We still have soldier tasks we have to accomplish but at the end of the day, we spend roughly 20 hours a week at minimum with our noses in books."
"Task Force Echo I and II built and got things up and running, and we (Task Force Echo III) will be the team that first uses it to its full potential," Boyle said. "I've never had more fun in a position than I am having right now doing cyber."