Do Cyberwarriors Belong at Special Operations Command?

By Stew Magnuson
Josh Hartman, a former congressional staffer and Defense Department executive, knows a good place for the military to house its cadre of cyberwarriors: In Tampa, Fla., at MacDill Air Force Base, home of Special Operations Command.

Consider the idea “that our future warriors in cyberspace are going to be our future special operations operator,” said Hartman, who is now a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There is nothing conventional about cyberspace operations, and there is nothing conventional about a cyberwarrior,” he said at the Space Foundation’s Cyber 1.1 event in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“You’re never going to put cyberwarriors in a formation and march them down a street,” he said.

While there has been a good deal of consternation about the United States’ lack of ability to defend itself from a cyber-attack, the subject of the nation’s ability to launch its own offensive measures on computer networks is rarely mentioned in public forums.

When it comes to the secretive cadre of cyberwarriors who are asked to attack in cyberspace, Hartman sees many similarities between the geek squads of the future and today’s commando units.

Like special operators, they will be asked to operate across all phases of the campaign. But they will be most valuable at the beginning when they can shape the strategic environment and dissuade and deter kinetic operations from occurring, he said.

They have to be integrated across the military. They will have to be organized in nontraditional structures — task forces, special units, small teams — and the like.

“In order to be agile at the speed of the Net, a big traditional force structure organization is not going to work in cyber or cyberwarrior organizations,” he said.

Like today’s special operators who are immersed in languages and specialize in certain regions, they will need to understand local populations and cultures, he continued.

They will have to be like a behavioral scientist or a cultural anthropologist to understand what the effects of an operation are so they can think like their enemies.

That will be key to understanding second- and third-order effects, he said. They must not only know the intended effects of taking down a network, but what happens after they launch an operation.

The decision to put U.S. Cyber Command, currently located at Fort Meade, Md., alongside the National Security Agency but under U.S. Strategic Command may be rethought some day to make it a subunified command under SOCOM, he said.

“I think as we begin to understand these effects more, to understand the needs in cyberspace and understand the face of our future cyberwarriors, we will reconsider that and think about putting it under SOCOM,” he said.

The face — or at least the stereotype — of the typical cyberspecialist is of a paunchy, pale-skinned geek whose only skin color comes from the glow of a computer screen.

This clashes with the special operator, the physically fit commandos like the Navy SEALS who successfully infiltrated Osama bin Laden’s compound and dispatched the terrorist with stealth and precision.

Walking around MacDill, it is not uncommon to see special operators out of uniform, he said. They have long hair, beards, mustaches, ponytails and tattoos. So there is already a nontraditional culture that exists within SOCOM, he said.

That brings up a question. If the military wants the best and brightest recruits for cyberoperations, do they have to be able to do 100 pushups in two minutes and run a 6-minute mile?

“Cyberwarriors of the future will be trading in their bulging biceps for bulging brains,” Hartman predicted.

In 2009, Army Lt. Col. Gregory Conti, a West Point professor of computer science, and Col. John “Buck” Surdu, chief of staff of the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command, brought up some of these points in an article that proposed setting up a cyberspace military branch to go alongside the Navy, Air Force and Army. Personnel with technical skills often do not fit in with the warrior cultures found in the military services.

“They are quite good at creating the best infantrymen, pilots, ship captains, tank commanders and artillerymen, but they do little to recognize and develop technical expertise,” the authors argued in the article in the Information Assurance Technology Newsletter, which is published by the Defense Department’s Information Assurance Technology Analysis Center.

There will naturally be cultural resistance to mixing the special operations and cyberspace worlds, Hartman said.

“Who wants a bunch of geeks coming into a very physical, prestigious field?”

The Air Force, which is generally seen as being out ahead of the other services in the cyberwarfare and defense realms, is in the process of building its cadre of cyberwarriors from the ground up.

Lt. Gen. Michael J. Basia, vice commander of Air Force space command, said the service is modeling its efforts on the success it had creating its ranks of space specialists. It graduated its first class of undergraduates in 2010.

He also acknowledged the different skill sets the cyberwarrior of the future will require.

Pilots train on aircraft that change incrementally over years and decades and they obey the laws of physics. That’s not the case in cyberspace.

“What do cyber professionals need in a domain where the platform isn’t as stable and is constantly changing?” he asked.

“What they learn today might not be relevant tomorrow. Cyberpros need to constantly train and continually reeducate themselves,” he said. The Air Force is creating a career field, much like it did with space.

“Besides cyber-operators and defenders we need intelligence, acquisitions and engineering professionals that are domain-focused for the majority of their career,” he said.

“We need CSI types. Young airmen that look at code and decipher it and figure out how to reverse engineer it,” he said.

The future cyberwarriors will have to include software developers who can deliver better tools and techniques for defeating threats without waiting for the traditional acquisition processes to deliver what they need.

Hartman said any big organization that manages cyberspace will have to be a mix of civilian and military, along with public and private partnerships.

The National Security Agency does not fit the bill because it is not focused on war fighting, he said.

“These kinds of organizations and these kinds of people don’t really exist today,” Hartman added.                               

Topics: Cybersecurity

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