Our Own Con: HammerCon and the Military Cyber Community

By Arvin Verma, CSSP

April 27, 2023

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The Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA) held its first national convention, HammerCon, on May 19, 2022 at Capitol Technology University in Laurel, Maryland. In attendance were hundreds of military service members; active, reserve, and retired; members across academia, private sector subject matter experts; and key policy makers within the United States (US) Government. 

During the morning registration, individuals were getting checked in by the dedicated MCPA staff and were graciously provided coffee and an assortment of pastries for breakfast while meeting with different organizations ranging from managed service providers (MSPs), academic entities, and various military cyber forces. 

Author (left) at the Army Cyber Center of Excellence HammerCon exhibit table.

The event provided a diverse set of conversations and discussions around the current cyber threat affecting the country and how the MCPA continues to support the advancement and development of cyber capabilities today and the future. By having three different tracks for attendees to participate in, the discussion allowed for a broad perspective to be brought in to address the next generation of cyber threats.

The conference began with comments from the main track MC, Colonel (Ret) Carmine Cicalese, followed with a MCPA overview brief by MCPA founder, Joe Billingsley. In his remarks, Billingsley explained that the name of HammerCon was inspired by Thor’s hammer, which is like cyberspace in that it is a tool that has the power to both build and destroy. The Order of Thor medal is how the MCPA recognizes excellence across the military cyber community.

Opening remarks by MCPA founder, Joe Billingsley

Then, a series of senior leaders provided remarks, whether in person or pre-recorded. They included Dr. Brad Sims (President of Capitol Technology University, the convention venue), Congressman Jim Langevin (who was then the inaugural chair of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) cyber focused subcommittee), Brigadier General (Ret) Chris Inglis (then the inaugural National Cyber Director), Jeff Moss (Founder of Black Hat and DEF CON), and Brigadier General Paul Craft (then Army Chief of Cyber). While each of these senior leaders spoke highly of the MCPA and HammerCon, General Craft’s remarks went the deepest on the MCPA, citing his experience as a member of the volunteer staff and now as advisor. As he put it, “MCPA plays an important role in the cyberverse” [1].  

General Craft’s pre-recorded remarks played in the HammerCon main track.

Immediately after the opening comments, groups were spread out between the Main Track – Cyber Operations Readiness & Experiences (CORE), Private Sector and Commercial Track – Growing Innovations in Tech (GIT), and the Research and Academic Track – New Emerging Research & Development (NERD). 

Within the CORE track, there were several speakers such as Chris Cleary (inaugural Principle Cyber Advisor of the Department of the Navy and MCPA Director) and Sergeant Major Amanda Draeger (Sergeant Major of the Army Cyber Institute). Then there was a panel of representatives from each service, including Coast Guard and Space Force, discussing the state of cyber career fields in their service. 

HammerCon cyber career field panel.

Within the Private Sector Track, sessions started with opening discussions from Major Stephanie Travis (Director of the Senior Military College Cyber Institute at Virginia Tech, Air National Guard Cyber Officer, and Editor in Chief of the MCPA’s magazine CYBER) and Colonel Brad Rhodes (Senior Manager at Accenture Federal, Army Reserve Cyber Officer, and HammerCon Co-Lead) where they provided their comments on the state of the cyber workforce and the impact that has on national security. 

Additionally, Leslie Kershaw (Founder of CyWren Solutions and first female on net operator in the Army) and Andrew Stewart (Senior National Security Strategist for Cybersecurity at Cisco and former Commander of the Navy Cyber Warfare Development Group) provided their thoughts on the next generation of private sector cyber involvement and direction to continue enhancing capabilities to support military warfighting effects. 

 Within the Research and Academic track, presentations were provided by Dr. Tomas Peña (former Offensive Cyber Operations Branch Chief at US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) and Editor in Chief of the MCPA’s peer-reviewed journal Military Cyber Affairs) and Chester Maciag (Director for Cyber Technologies at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) for Research and Engineering (R&E) on the current state of defense cyber research. 

Additionally, Dr. Tyler Cody (Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech) and Josh Baughman (Analyst for the China Aerospace Studies Institute at Air University) also spoke on their research efforts on new capability development by other nation state governments.  At the conclusion of the morning sessions, lunch was graciously provided by Mission BBQ (along with a visit from BamBam, the iconic Mission BBQ truck). Lunch, along with event entry, was free for all MCPA members and members of the US military, which was appreciated by the attendees. The lunch break provided an opportunity for many attendees to experience the various villages. The MCPA effectively imported great aspects of gatherings like DEF CON, but tailored specifically for this military cyber community, and the villages were at the top of that list. The IOT (internet of everything) and lockpick village provided hands-on learning for HammerCon attendees, alongside exhibits from DreamPort focused on critical infrastructure hacking and the Naval Cyber Warfare Engineering Society focused on hacking a missile launcher (model). 

HammerCon lunch being served.

At the conclusion of Lunch, the track conversations resumed. Within the main track, the convention keynote was provided by Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Sheryl Lyon (the Command Senior Enlisted Leader of USCYBERCOM and the National Security Agency (NSA)). CSM Lyon provided a great talk around talent management and the future development of the country’s cyber warriors, where the challenges currently are and how we can establish a path forward to attract, retain and develop the nation’s best. At the conclusion of her talk, CSM Lyon was presented with the gold Order of Thor medal, the MCPA’s highest honor, by Major General (Ret) George Franz (inaugural Commander of the Cyber National Mission Forces). 

Franz (left) presenting the medal to Lyon.

Within the private sector oriented track, post-lunch presentations were provided by Mitch Rubenstien (former cyberwarfare instructor at the Naval Academy) and a team comprised of Amanda Lockwood (President for Cyber and Information Warfare at IDS International) and Melissa Sowerwine (Director at IDS International). In the academic track, presentations were provided by Dr. Bill Butler (Vice President at Capitol Technology University), Dr. Joseph Schafer (Associate Dean at the National Defense University (NDU) College of Information and Cyberspace (CIC) and MCPA National Capital Region (NCR) Chapter President), Colonel Linda Reidel (Deputy Director of the Citadel DoD Cyber Institute), and a team from the Air Force Cyber College (AFCC) Dr. Chad Dacus and Dr. Carl Horn (Professors of Cyber Warfare Studies).  

IoT Village at HammerCon.

Continuing to the main track, Thomas Wingfield, Esq. (former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Cyber Policy) and Rear Admiral (Ret) Mark Montgomery (Executive Director of the US Cyberspace Solarium Commission) spoke about the legislative efforts associated with the Commission’s final report, and how the military cyber community can assist with those efforts. 

Perhaps the most exciting presentation of the day was hearing Colonel Ihor Kovalevskyi (Military Attaché at the Embassy of Ukraine in the US) speak about the impact of cyber activities from the Russian government. Colonel Kovalevskyi provided comments around the various activities and actions the Russian government was utilizing, from a cyber perspective, as they continue their efforts at initiating war with Ukraine. In recognition of Colonel Kovalevskyi’s contributions, he was presented the Order of Thor medal by Chris Cleary on behalf of the MCPA. 

Colonel Kovalevskyi’s HammerCon talk on Russian cyber aggression against Ukraine. 

Following the briefing, Chris Roberts (CISO at Boom Supersonic, military veteran, and hacker) provided his experiences while conducting cyber research through active hacking attempts. This included his own personal experiences while conducting activities to expose threats through common interfaces, most notably aircraft entertainment systems. Immediately following this presentation. Chris was presented with the Order of Thor from Colonel Brad Rhodes. 

Roberts at HammerCon.

The last panel consisted of Lieutenant Colonel Amanda Mason (J2 (Air) of the DC Air National Guard and MCPA Director), Major General (Ret) George Franz, Dr. Diane Janosek (Deputy Director for Compliance of the NSA), and Master Gunnery Sergeant Scott Stalker (Command Senior Enlisted Leader of US Space Command (USSPACECOM). 

During the closing ceremony, several members of the community were presented with the Order of Thor in recognition of their contributions to the US military, cyber efforts, and MCPA. Immediately following the closing ceremony, attendees were hosted to an on-site reception to reconnect and reflect on the insights gained throughout the day. At the reception, a scholarship was presented by the MCPA founder to a deserving MCPA volunteer with a child in college. 

In closing, the first HammerCon was a complete success with several great presentations, collaboration and more opportunities to continue the never-ending conversations of how the US military can continue to use cyber as a force multiplier. As the MCPA ramps up for HammerCon 2.0 on 18 May 2023, I am registered and awaiting this world-class Con for our military cyber community. 

All photos courtesy of MCPA.


[1]   https://youtu.be/d20PoIGUAAQ   

About the Author

Arvin is a former Naval Cryptologic Warfare Officer, member of the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary, InfraGard leader, Cyber Warfare Fellow at the Cyber Security Forum Initiative, and Senior Strategic Business Advisor / vCISO at Sentinel Technologies.