Cybersecurity: Facing the Front Lines

It’s a new era for cybersecurity, and some might say the stakes have never been higher.

Just a couple weeks ago (with everything that’s going on in the world, from Iraq to Ukraine) the Director of National Intelligence said – for the third year in a row – that the threats we face in cyberspace are the United States’ top strategic threat.  Just last week, the Department of Defense got special authority to hire 3,000 cyber security professionals.

It stands to reason that cyber threats, and the growing digital community, isn’t going away.  As a matter of fact, there’s a chance that this cyber-based technological evolution is going to change all levels of society – from communication, to media, to warfare.  Really, in many cases, it already has.

This is exactly why we need a smart, effective cyber strategy to keep ourselves safe. The cybersecurity defense professional was a job that didn’t exist until very recently. Now it’s become an integral part of the DoD’s first line of digital defense.

Earlier today, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke to troops at Cyber Command HQ, telling the cybersecurity professionals that they are regarded as being on the front lines. He also says they are trying to build upon their strengths, and that openness is key.

“We as a government, a military, need to be open to sources of good people and new technology,” Secretary Carter says. “We need to be open in order to be good.  That means we need to build bridges.  Bridges that that don’t have civilian or commercial counterparts.  We need to build bridges and rebuild bridges.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter hosts an all-call meeting at the Pentagon to inform Defense Department personnel about his priorities as he takes office. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Released)

Defense Secretary Ash Carter hosts an all-call meeting at the Pentagon to inform Defense Department personnel about his priorities as he takes office. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Released)

There’s little wonder why the cyber mission is one of Secretary Carter’s highest priorities. Leadership is seized, he said, with the need to get on top of the cyber problem. Cyber is, amongst many things, an element of warfare. Now more so than ever. There’s a Sun Tzu quote that I think applies so well to the burgeoning cyber warfare strategy: “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

It’s hard to be prepared for cyber contingencies we might face if we’re not adequately equipping the first line of defense.  That, Secretary Carter says, is one of his main missions; to give cyber security professions the best training, equipment and resources they need. But it goes beyond people in seats and training completion.  It’s about, as always, being a superior force for defense, no matter what challenges we face.

Secretary Ash Carter calls cyber, “A marriage between the best people and the newest technology.”

To get through the training that U.S. Cyber Command requires is no small feat, and those who do become a part of a very elite group. A group that faces a very serious threat to our national security.  One that doesn’t need armies or tanks or missiles to execute an attack; only a computer and the right skillset. And you know, there’s something threatening about an enemy that can equip itself for battle with technology that can be bought at your local computer store.

When our enemies are capable of inflicting real harm to the general population, it only makes sense that the population would want to protect themselves. Cyber Command’s mission is a defensive one, says Secretary Carter, and that’s the way it should be.

To that end, Secretary Carter says that he will “stand with you [cyber warfighters] on the side of requiring protection.  You’re laying the warfighter open to risk [otherwise], and we can’t have that.”

The Department of Defense is building a cyber force, Secretary Carter says, because the DoD wants to preserve the openness of cyberspace for those who create and innovate, and to stand against those who would steal, and destroy.

This, of course, comes with an element of both restraint and careful oversight.  That is, operational oversight through Cybercom Commander Admiral Michael Rogers and a strong chain of command, policy and legal oversight through longstanding, rigorous procedures, and civilian oversight through the President and the Secretary of Defense.

This may be a frontier, but we’ll have no cowboys on this side of the fence.  So why all the mile markers?  Simply put, the Defense Secretary says it’s so that Cybercom, and Department of Defense, can live up to our values and avoid miscalculation in these still early days of the cyber age. He also wants the cyber workforce to know, emphatically, that he does not take them – or their mission – for granted.

“You’re going to be pathfinders,” he told them, “but we will find the path together.”

Jessica L. Tozer is the editor-in-chief for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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