The Jobs of the Future in National Security and Intelligence

By John Mercier
The nation’s civilian and military leaders have delivered a consistent message: A highly skilled technical work force is key to national security.

The development of tomorrow’s work force must begin now. Even as we are engaged in current conflicts, we don’t know what the future will hold and we have to be ready for it. If we do not address maintaining our lead in science and technology on a rigorous and continuous basis, then we will soon find ourselves in second place. Having second-place technology on the battlefield, in the air and on the sea means we risk losing a future war.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is in fact a national security issue.

Undergraduate and graduate students should know that careers in national security and intelligence are both challenging and rewarding. There is job satisfaction in serving the country, not just in the military, but in other federal agencies, the intelligence community and with government contractors that support the mission.

Another message for students is that there are many opportunities for careers in national security and intelligence, and that they can start early with an array of summer intern programs. In many industry and government internships, students can obtain security clearances and work on classified programs. This is a great motivator for students because they contribute to national security before graduating. They also learn that their cleared status will bump up their starting salaries upon graduation. Students should know that clearances aren’t just about having a spotless criminal record. It’s also about having clean financial records. Students should pay attention to their finances because having a bad credit score can be the basis for denying a security clearance.

In understanding the government’s responsibility to protect our forces and our citizens, and in understanding high-consequence threats, the three topics that keep our leaders up at night are nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism and cyber-attacks. Career opportunities tied to these three areas will persist for many years. Looking across the national security and intelligence communities for current and future needs, there are 11 primary STEM areas that will generate growing demand for expertise and personnel with clearances for at least the next five to 10 years:
  • Cyberscience
  • Data Analytics and Predictive Analysis
  • Virtual Reality Engineering
  • Computational Molecular Sciences to include Computational Biology
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Nuclear Science and Engineering
  • Robotics and Artificial Intelligence
  • Applied micro- and nano-engineering
  • Digital Imaging Science
  • Biometrics
  • Forensic Science; especially Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and cyberforensics
These 11 fields are not exclusive. STEM skills related to climate change, protecting the nation’s energy supply chain, and securing critical infrastructure are also needed. However, work force capacity is more difficult to predict in assessing the long-term demand in these and other areas.

In cybersecurity, we need to protect networks, infrastructure, markets and other information technology dependent functions of the U.S. government and industries. We also need to be able to attribute cyberattacks and, if necessary, conduct our own digital warfare.

Experts who can manage and analyze enormous data sets will continue to be in high demand. These specialists conduct data mining, high performance computing, data fusion and develop methods for visually understanding what story the data is telling (e.g., visual analytics).

One area for such skills is in bioinformatics where, for example, human proteins that communicate with threat agent proteins — such as anthrax — can be identified by mining a variety of medical and research publication databases. This data analysis can then inform what human proteins are the best to study as biomarkers for exposure thereby better informing biosurveillance research investments.

This is an example of applying the “data-to-decision” capability that is desired by senior officials at the Pentagon. Many of the same data mining and data analytics techniques that are applied in the bioinformatics example are useful across the national security and intelligence communities.  

Virtual reality engineering includes skills in gaming methodologies, augmented reality and simulator design. Understanding the usefulness of flight simulators to pilots is a no-brainer. Now think about designing simulators for any environment where realism can be well represented and either significant costs are saved by training in the simulator or risks are reduced by not having to enter an actual hazardous environment to gain the experience.

One automobile manufacturer in Europe has taken this field to a new level by linking a supercomputer to a 3D design simulator. The engineers enter the simulator and design the new vehicle from scratch with touch screen movements and voice commands, such as “Extend tail pipe by 4 inches.” Imagine simulators that address full spectrum “fog of war” environments for teams operating at tactical and strategic levels. Such systems will capture human actions and behaviors automatically and provide immediate lessons learned for both individual and team performance.

In the area of augmented reality, recall the yellow first-down line that is shown on the television screen during a football game. The yellow line is a digital augmentation to the actual live shot of the field of play. Think of applying this technology to an iPhone or similar personal device with an imager. Let’s say you fly over an area with an unmanned aircraft full of sensors. The sensors identify the type and location of hazards on the ground. The first responder or soldier on the ground holds up her iPhone, activates the “where are the hazards” application, and then sees the hazards on the screen via an augmented reality process. This informs her of what path is safe to take to get out of the hazard area such that her iPhone doubles as a pseudo-sensor system. The applications for this type of technology are limitless.

Nuclear forensics is another critical area. Suppose a customs agent interdicts some smuggled nuclear material. The material can tell a story of where it originated and who is responsible for removing the material from its source location. There are analytical techniques that can characterize the signature of the nuclear material. When the analytical techniques for nuclear forensics are combined with traditional forensic analysis techniques — fingerprints, DNA evidence — associated with the interdicted material, much of the story is uncovered.

Attributing the source of the nuclear material and the individuals involved in smuggling it is achieved by fusing the forensic science evidence with law enforcement and intelligence information. With the current shortage of nuclear forensics experts, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at the Department of Homeland Security is overseeing several educational pipeline development programs to include summer internships and graduate fellowships.

Although the national security and intelligence mission space is STEM centric, there certainly will be opportunities for expertise that is not primarily steeped in these skills. Requirements for acquisition management professionals will persist for many years. Many government departments and agencies are also in need of qualified contracting specialists. The national security and intelligence communities are not immune to these shortages.

Of particular concern is the lack of STEM professionals who take on acquisition management roles. By integrating STEM expertise into this field, more rigor can be applied earlier in the technology life cycle. Since the national security mission is heavily dependent on science and technology solutions, improving the acquisition management pipeline will require integrating STEM expertise early into acquisition processes.

Language skills — particularly for regions of known and emerging adversaries — is another area where there will be further demand. Trusted interpreters are essential in many areas of conflict. They are also needed for written translations. Here again, combining STEM with another area of expertise is particularly valuable and these dual-skilled experts with clearances are in short supply.

Such individuals can perform both open source and classified foreign literature searches to identify emerging threat technologies and other risks. They can also assist in the development of software and lingual algorithms needed for automated foreign technology literature searches and similar applications.

John Mercier, Ph.D., PE, DABR, PMP, a retired U.S. Army colonel, served as director of weapons of mass destruction defense programs at Noblis, and is now starting Tech62 Inc., a service-disabled veteran owned small business focused on WMD defense and national security professional services.

Topics: Research and Development

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