The national defence force acknowledges it is working on cyber defence, but as with much else in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) the problem in making this sphere of warfare operational is funding. The same does not apply to students at the SA Military Academy who for the first time entered a team in the Geneva Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge this year.
The South African team, entered as the Cyber Soldiers, was one of four African teams selected. Major Engela Meintijies, Academy communication officer, reports the Saffer cyber soldiers were a surprise package, progressing to the semi-finals and being the last African team standing.
“Their achievement saw them beat experienced teams and finished as the best placed military team,” she said noting it was “a considerable achievement for a first-time team and coach”.
The Geneva Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge is a respected international competition designed to provide senior university students with a deeper understanding of the strategic and policy challenges associated with escalating cyber incidents and potential cyber conflict. The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the Atlantic Council host the event.
The multi-stage scenario exercise requires teams to respond to a realistic, evolving, multinational cyber security incident. Competitors must analyse and respond to threats posed to national, international and private sector interests. Teams hail from the world’s top universities and service academies and entry is a competitive process requiring a team essay submission after which the top 30 teams are selected to compete. Fifty judges from leading global companies, academia and government provide teams with insights into the real world of global cyber threats and how to respond and mitigate against them.
The competition is “fought” over 48 hours of updated scenario challenges with elimination rounds featuring tough competitors, pressure aplenty and extraordinarily little sleep. Each team presents to four-strong international judge panels in each round. Judges assess and critique team responses. The competition tests geostrategic and cyber knowledge, agility, commitment as well as presentation and public speaking skills.
South Africa’s Cyber Soldiers 2022 were Major Sifiso Masuku, Lieutenant (SAN) Thobile Netshivhazwaulu, Second Lieutenant Prince Mphaka and Lieutenant (SAN) GJ Jansen van Rensburg. The team was coached by Lieutenant Colonel (Dr) Susan Henrico from the Department of Strategic Studies. The coach mentors the team with Henrico grabbing the opportunity with both hands building an enviable esprit de corps.
The Cyber Soldiers reflect on the competition and what they learnt.
“For me, the competition allowed us to fully appreciate the skillsets each member of the team brought. This was more important in light of the load shedding we had to cope with. The competition taught us to consider solutions to suit the complex environment in which we live,” was Masuku’s observation.
“The competition brought to light, for me at least, the nuances of cyber security. If not for my fellow team members I would not have been able to consider half the implications of recommendations I thought of. This competition, but more so, my teammates, again underlined the value of working together, relying on each other, and considering all inputs when accomplishing a task. It also showed cyberspace is not confined to one domain, with strategy and history students also contributing and learning,” is how Janse van Rensburg summed up the competition.
“As a team, we learned the effects and the intricacies associated with cyber security at national, continental and international levels. From this, as a history student, I learnt cyber security is the responsibility of everyone using cyber space and critical infrastructures. The team managed to reach the semi-finals and assumed position seven in an international competition despite the distance between team members which warranted sheer reliance of remote communication. It left me in awe of my teammates, coming from different fields of study, who I learned so much from,” was Netshivhazwaulu’s view.
“The competition offered our students a unique and highly relevant opportunity not only to test current cyber knowledge, but also to research the topic and learn from the international cyber community. Our students, who did this competition in their free time, were extremely committed and I was impressed with their ability to work effectively as a team even though not at the same site. All team meetings were online, well into the early morning hours and struggled through load shedding schedules. They were confident in their presentations and included all relevant cyber policies and strategies.
“I congratulate them on their character as soldiers and as Cyber Soldiers! I salute you!” was Henrico’s summation.
The Academy presence in the competition was rounded off by Noelle van der Waag of the Department of Strategic Studies. She was a final round judge. This is seen as an immense honour with only the top four of all participating judges selected to judge the final round.
Looking ahead the Military Academy will be back next year to compete for gold. The 2023 competition will take place on the ground in Geneva so the immediate focus is to secure a sponsorship to get the team to Geneva.
Lessons learned this year will be utilised in next year’s Challenge preparations and stand the Military Academy in good stead. The Military Academy said it is proud of the team’s journey as the Cyber Soldiers set a high benchmark for future South African teams.
Finally, the success achieved underlines the importance and quality of the growing cyber and space programme at the Military Academy. “The experience gained from such events lies at the core of our ultimate mission – preparing our future leaders to fight and win in cyberspace,” the Academy said.
The SA Military Academy is a military unit of the SANDF housing the Faculty of Military Science of the University of Stellenbosch.