It’s not every day that a Coast Guard member finds themselves conducting cyber operations overseas, but that is exactly what Lt. Cmdr. Sean Plankey did while serving a 7-month tour in Afghanistan.
After completing his masters in the C4IT advanced education program at University of Pennsylvania, Plankey was assigned to U.S. Cyber Command in Ft. Meade, Maryland as the Weapons and Tactics Branch chief. From this position, a unique opportunity presented itself: provide all offensive cyberspace operations in direct support of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and subordinate units.
“I asked to go,” he said. “I felt confident in the skills I learned and knew I could make a difference.”
For Plankey, the opportunity to deploy overseas wasn’t something he had to think twice about.
“Our service is an armed force. The Coast Guard has fought in every US war since 1790. I wanted to do my part to support our nation during wartime, regardless of the location,” he said.
Although he would be deployed overseas for seven months, his wife, U.S. Olympian Maddy Crippen, understood how important it was to him and was supportive throughout the entire process. “She’s the toughest person I know. She has this innate ability to focus and get through the most difficult of situations,” said Plankey.
A short period later, he headed out for deployment training with the U.S. Army, saying goodbye to his family to perform his duties with U.S. Forces Afghanistan as the Deputy Officer in Charge of the U.S. Cyber Command team.
Once he arrived, Plankey met his team: a U.S. Army Lt. Col., a U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr., a British Air Force officer, a civilian and an Australian Air Force officer.
“I was really lucky to have the team I did. My boss, Lt. Col. Fred Lora, had deployed before and was very familiar with how to get things done in a deployed environment. His leadership directly led to our team’s success. Not only that, our Aussie and British Coalition partners’ technical expertise helped us to solve technical issues in the field that might otherwise have impeded operations.”
In his new role, Plankey found opportunities to repurpose some existing capabilities in direct support of operations. Over the next few months, he and his team would change the status quo – taking cyberspace operations to an increasingly tactical level. The team transitioned from a more strategic information operations role to providing force protection for coalition forces, disrupting insurgent communications during kinetic operations. Plankey and his team traveled to 16 different Forward Operating Bases, Village Stability Platforms, and bases in direct support of special operations teams.
The biggest challenge the team had was protecting the citizens of Afghanistan came on Election Day – a time when there was a high probability of insurgent attacks. Plankey and his team led an operation to successfully disrupt those attacks, ensuring the safety of Afghanistan officials and citizens. Due to classification, he can’t give specifics on what the team accomplished, but it is clear that their efforts made a significant difference in the security of both U.S. Armed Forces and the people of Afghanistan.
It is this kind of cyber operational mind-set Plankey hopes to share with the rest of the Coast Guard now that he is back stateside.
“In the Coast Guard, it seems we have a concept that we are a strictly defensive force – which is a fallacy,” said Plankey. “Every counter drug interdiction is an offensive law enforcement action. Every time we traverse foreign territorial waters it’s an offensive diplomatic action. We do these things daily but don’t always recognize their larger purpose in national security strategy. I believe the Coast Guard is potentially the most versatile instrument of national security that the President has at his disposal.”
Plankey’s offensive and innovative strategies overseas improved overall success for coalition forces and helped to ensure the safety of both our troops and Afghanistan citizens. For his efforts, he was awarded the Bronze Star by U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
“I was totally amazed and honored to receive the award,” he said. “They said that I had opened a door for tactical operations that had never been done before.”
Plankey was also recently named to represent the Coast Guard at the White House as a distinguished service member by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.
“I’m just proud to wear the uniform,” he added. “It is really important to me to be able to serve and to make a difference in support of our great nation. Semper Paratus!”