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Duke Team Wins National Cyber Policy Competition

Duke Team Wins National Cyber Policy Competition

By Marc Losito,  January 14, 2021

The Atlantic Council Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge is an annual cyber policy and strategy competition where students from across the globe compete in developing policy recommendations, tackling a fictional cyber catastrophe.  The event curates a three-round cyber crisis scenario, each developing upon the last, with far-reaching implications on national security, international law, economics, and politics.  The January, 2021 competition tested the policy chops of ambitious students from renowned universities and institutes.  To say the least, the competition was fierce and not for the faint of heart.  The judges, playing the role of the National Security Council, are some of the most respected and high-level cyber professionals in the field.  More importantly, it’s not a competition you can win without committing days, weeks, and months of time in preparation and rehearsal.  The Arrows of Artemis, a policy and strategy team from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, did exactly that on the road to victory.

“You have fifteen minutes to read the final intelligence pack and prepare your decision briefing to the National Security Council.”  Our collective hearts raced as we poured through the new developments of the scenario in the final round.  Ransomware was paralyzing regional hospitals in at least five states, sending our digital, yet fragile healthcare system back to the stone age.  Cyber vigilantes were moving out in front of U.S. response, potentially jeopardizing international relations and inducing avoidable escalation.  And, the latest forensic efforts revealed a potential cyber threat to medical cold storage facilities, endangering the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.  Fifteen minutes is hardly enough time to prepare for any decision brief, let alone form cogent thoughts around a highly complex cyber scenario.  The team, with only one previous competition under our belts, rallied around the strategies and coaching that had gotten us this far.

“We are Arrows of Artemis, a team of Duke public policy graduate students with backgrounds ranging from the military to Peace Corps to Teach for America.”  – Jon Liu, MPP’22

As the fifteen minutes began to elapse, we silently worked on each of our responsibilities in preparation for the final decision brief.  There was very little talking and when there was, it sounded like code.  Similar to a flawless double play on a baseball diamond, everyone knew their role and responsibility.  Our coach, Kim Kotlar, who is the mentor for the three year old Duke Cyber student-led organization, was anxiously awaiting our arrival in the competition Zoom room; it was possible Kim got less sleep than the team on the eve of the final rounds.  An ominous voice alerted the team, “you have five minutes remaining.”  Weeks of preparations, strategy discussions, what-ifs, and critical feedback shaped the remaining minutes.  “Jon, did you…” Marc asked.  “Already done,” Jon replied.  Then Jon, “Zach do you need…”  “I’m good to go,” Zach said.  Kim had put us through the cyber policy crucible, and we were prepared because of it.

“We are Arrows of Artemis,” Jon firmly stated to the panel of judges, “a team of Duke public policy graduate students with backgrounds ranging from the military to Peace Corps to Teach for America.”  It was a rehearsed statement that Jon had delivered each round, but its familiarity sparked a sense of confidence.  The formula was relatively straightforward, Jon Liu tees up the strategic overview, Zach Sanna delivers the assessment framework, Gia Dehart lays out carefully planned recommendations, and Marc Losito cleans up with a risk assessment.  But in this competition, we were without one of our teammates.  Regrettably, Gia had to make the impossible decision to withdraw due to competing events.  However, Jon’s crisp delivery of that familiar opener set the tone for the championship round.  It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but neither our inexperience in national cyber policy competitions nor being down a teammate was going to keep the Arrows of Artemis from doing what we do best—work together as a team.

“My favorite thing about our team is that we all have a growth mindset.  We are happy to accept and incorporate feedback.”  – Zach Sanna, MPP’22

Prior to the competition, we identified our strengths and strategies as individuals and as a team.  We favored strategic thinking and exploring all available tools of national power to address the crisis.  We leaned heavily toward deliberate and offensive cyber actions, but not at the cost of understanding the threat, political and international capital, or American lives.  Marc and Gia came from extensive military backgrounds, sharpened by national security and foreign policy experience.  Jon hailed from the Peace Corps with in-depth knowledge of international development and economics.  Zach, previously with Teach for America, brought a wealth of domestic policy and legal knowledge.  But one thing was clear, cyber policy wasn’t exactly in any of our historical bailiwicks.  We would have to draw upon our breadth of policy skills, knowledge, and professional experience to fill in the gaps.  

“Cyber continues to be an important cross-cutting discipline with broad national security implications and it’s thrilling to see the growing interest at Duke.  I’m so pleased that Duke University is adding technical and policy courses to engage students and that Sanford, Pratt, and Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) leaders continue to support Duke Cyber – a student led organization with nearly 500 students.”  – Kim Kotlar, Duke Cyber Mentor and Coach

At first glance, it could be hard to ascertain why a group of students, seemingly underqualified in cyber, would be in a cyber policy competition.  To make sense of it, you’d have to know that each member is somehow affiliated with the Sanford School’s newest policy concentration—technology policy—and are members of the Duke Cyber Club—the cyber arm of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.  Technology policy, which overlaps with cyber, crosscuts the public policy landscape in a globalizing and ever-expanding digital world.  With these points in mind, you might think the Arrows of Artemis were designed for the Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge.  

“The competition rewards teamwork, written and oral skills, and a wide range of policy knowledge. These are the intangibles we are going to need as policy makers in the future.”  – Marc Losito, MPP’22

As the decision brief in the final round came to a close, and after the judges had concluded their questioning period, we had no idea where we stood among the competition.  We had given it our best effort, incorporated feedback from the judges and our coach along the way, and deployed our strengths and strategy with a little bit of hope.  Seeing the Arrows of Artemis, Duke University named first place in a national policy competition has been the highlight of our graduate school experiences, thus far.  Bragging rights, cash prizes, and a starter cyber library are all icing-on-the-cake in representing Duke, Sanford, and our coach in a job well done.  Hopefully the Arrows of Artemis’s story can inspire fellow graduate and undergraduate students to compete in enriching experiences, like this one, to sharpen our policy skills for the task that lies beyond Duke.


Marc Losito is a first-year MPP candidate at Duke University, Sanford School of Public Policy and an active duty U.S. Army Warrant Officer, focusing on the intersection of technology and national security. The views expressed in the article are his alone and do not represent Duke University, the Sanford School of Public Policy, nor the U.S. Army.