Learn to Fight:

A Combat Training Perspective on the First Steps of the Cyber Warrior Path

By Roman Kocherovsky

Let’s face it, I’m not your typical “nerd.” I spent my childhood on the wrestling mat, and most of my adult life running around the woods and jumping out of perfectly good aircraft. Data, hacking, and cyberwar were furthest from my mind. But the recent emergence of modern censors, microcomputers, and data analytics forced me to pick the snake meat out of my teeth and take notice. I realized that the ability to modify modern hardware and software is no longer a hobby or a side fascination. It is a basic skill set required to be successful and secure in our society.

I didn’t know where to start so I did the first thing that came to my mind. I went to a buddy of mine, who is a cyber war whiz-kid, and said “teach me how to hack, bro.” That’s right. Not “how can I be more secure?” or “how do I protect my identity” no, “TEACH ME TO HACK!” My logic is simple: when someone asks me to teach them self-defense, I teach them to fight. When I deploy to conduct Foreign Internal Defense (FID), I teach the host nation military warfare. When I train soldiers to increase their survivability, I teach them to beat the snot out of everything in sight. So learning vanilla privacy practices makes no sense when what I should be learning is “Cyber Martial Arts.”

Yes, cyber war should be left to the professionals, similar to how maneuver and unconventional warfare are the “wheelhouses” of national militaries and intelligence agencies. But private citizens the world over have recognized the need, and passion, for the study of individual martial arts for fun and better personal security. It is logical, then, that private citizens should also embrace the study of “cyber martial arts” to improve their lives, have fun, and stay safe on the net.

This is not an intuitive jump for some because of the unfamiliar and abstract appearance of the digital world. However, once you cut through all the cable, processors, and trillions of lines of code, the unknowns are not that great. The base of the digital world is HUMANS. They have human minds, with human strengths and limitations. Their abilities and technological means are not unlimited, their technology is not magical, and their reaction time is not instantaneous. The technological community is just like any fight sport or military profession. It has its superstars, world champions, and elite organizations. But every one of these people and organizations started at level zero during their first inception.So while jumping into a complex and competitive mindscape can be intimidating the first steps are the hardest. A few pointers for success are outlined below.

Don’t wait for that degree, certificate or computer class

If you can read and do a google search you have everything you need to start learning. Tech academics and hobbyist hackers of all walks of life love to publish on the net. So finding articles and sources to get you started should be very simple (try searching “beginner hacking”). While a good course is awesome, and getting accredited doesn’t hurt, it does not mean that you have to wait until you sit in a classroom, or dish out cash for an online course. Start by educating yourself and the rest will come with time. 

Get out of your basement and find some training buddies

While home gyms are great, people make the most progress by going to actual gyms and martial arts dojos. This is not for the equipment, it is to find like-minded individuals and exchange ideas. The net, and often the bar, are tailor made for the cyber martial artist to accelerate their learning curve by exchanging and cooperating with others. Just like I would not try to lift a personal record without a spotter, I wouldn’t recommend wandering into a new area on the net without a guide to keep me from doing something stupid. And yes, the Military Cyber Professionals Association is one such group that inspired me to get involved. 

Find an area of cyber martial arts that you are passionate about

The tech world is vast on both the hardware and software side. Don’t rabbit-hole into things that “you have to do,” jump on stuff that you want to do. You will inevitably stumble on to problems and roadblocks that will frustrate you and test your resilience. Working on projects you love makes it more likely that you will see them to completion.

Expect adversity and don’t try to go pro overnight

Probably the greatest lessons of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) is to never quit and divide your journey into small accomplishable tasks. I don’t care if you are a physical cyborg or barely hanging on, everyone has a period of adversity and begins to question their own merit. This is natural and expected, but it is no reason to quit. Focus on the immediate task at hand, look to achieving a “small victory” by accomplishing an intermediary goal, and lean on your peers for support. You will barely notice the problems that were easy, but you will remember forever the stuff that crushed your soul.

Establish a consistent schedule of training

Our combat troops don’t start training for war upon receipt of deployment orders. Rather, they train constantly at varying degrees of intensity to keep their skills and bodies fresh as well as to develop mastery. In much the same way, spending 16 hours a day for a period of two weeks then dropping off for six months will do you no good. You will find yourself constantly relearning what you forgot before moving forward. Set a schedule of twice weekly or more training sessions to improve your cyber martial art ability. It won’t be noticeable at first, but a year or so down the road you will be surprised at your own progress.

Get competitive early

The biggest mistake I see new martial arts students make is waiting years to be “really good” before attempting their first competition. This stems from the lack of understanding of how to improve. A competition validates your training, identifies shortfalls, and lets you see other competitors’ techniques and gear. You really can’t be a better fighter without it. On the cyber side people can check out the National Cyber League at www.nationalcyberleague.org who hold regularly scheduled events. For those of you in the Department of Defense or Interagency community you can also look at Joint Cyber Competition https://jctf.io/, and NSA Codebreaker Challenge https://codebreaker.ltsnet.net/home.They are a great way to test your skills and see what others are doing. One of my Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) coaches used to say that one fight is worth 10 years of training. So go forth and compete; Whether you win, lose or draw, bump digital fists, complement the other competitors and encourage each other to meet again. In a good natured group, your competition will become some of your closest buddies.

All around us the modern ethical hacker is surging in technological advances. Don’t be left behind. No matter our background or level of technological expertise, everyone can benefit from consistent training and education in the digital domain. Remember that just like athletes and top Special Operations units, we never drive for perfection but rather for constant improvement.

About the Author

Roman Kocherovsky is a new contributor to the Military Cyber Professional Association team. He brings a fresh look to the Cyber profession through the lens of an experienced combat arms officer with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Science. Roman channels his passion for military advancement by promoting the study of multi-domain, synchronous combat, as well as working to bridge the communication gap between various defense entities to positively influence the development of a smarter, more unified, and capable American fighting force.