Pentagon’s 5,000-Strong Cyber Force Passes Key Operational Step

  • Teams will target ‘closest alligators to the boat’: analyst
  • Force to reach full operating capability by September 2018

Data

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

A 5,000-person Pentagon force created to bolster military computer networks and initiate cyber attacks against terror groups should be ready to carry out its mission by the end of the week, a key step in improving the U.S.’s ability to respond to hacks by overseas adversaries.

The Cyber Mission Force will reach "initial operational capability” by Friday, said Colonel Daniel J.W. King, a Cyber Command spokesman, in an e-mail. The group’s 133 teams have met basic criteria on personnel, training, resources and equipment, but all of them aren’t necessarily ready to launch attacks, he said.

The force, which falls under the U.S. Cyber Command created in 2009, likely will focus on the highest priorities, such as risks from Russia, China, Iran and terrorist groups including Islamic State, according to Bob Stasio, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former chief of operations at the National Security Agency’s Cyber Operations Center.

Until the force becomes fully operational, which is planned in 2018, the question officials directing it will ask first will be, “What’s the minimum operation I need against the biggest threats that I have today -- the closest alligators to the boat," Stasio said.

For a QuickTake on why bad cybersecurity can be good news, click here

Previously, cyber operations were scattered in silos across Cyber Command, the NSA and other military branches, according to Stasio. The new centralized force will help cut through the bureaucracy, he added. Officials plan to expand the force by another 1,200 people as part of the process of becoming fully combat ready.

"We continue to generate the mission force," Admiral Michael Rogers, who heads Cyber Command and the NSA, said in a Sept. 13 speech in Washington. "At the same time, we got to tell ourselves we are not where we need to be in this mission."

The operational capability designation means the Pentagon has better streamlined cyber activities across its bureaucracy, but analysts say it doesn’t necessarily reflect greater security chops as defense officials try to keep up with fast-evolving technology and threats.

"What it means is we have the people, the tools, we’ve practiced and we’re ready," said Mark Young, chief security officer and senior vice president at IronNet Cybersecurity Inc. and a former senior executive at Cyber Command. 

Digital Labyrinth

As hacking attacks traced to countries such as Russia and China continue to make U.S. headlines, people "can feel more comfortable -- not completely comfortable -- but they can feel more comfortable, that we now have a military force that could respond if directed to these activities," Young said.

The mission force is tasked with defending the Defense Department’s data and its labyrinth of thousands of digital networks across the world. It also has to defend the U.S. "against cyber attacks of significant consequence" as well as the nation’s critical infrastructure, King said. Cyber war plans are also in place for the military’s various regional commands.

Setting up the force is also a sign that cyber is more "baked into" the military’s overall strategy, while providing defense officials a grasp of how much it needs to spend on cybersecurity, said Dave Aitel, chief executive officer of Immunity Inc. and a former NSA computer scientist. In its 2017 information technology budget, the Defense Department requested $6.8 billion for cyber operations.

Money Buckets

"You have to kind of look at it as if you’re building a whole new Navy, that’s a very expensive operation," Aitel said. "It gives them better buckets to throw money into and know where that money is going."

There’s work ahead as the military builds out all of its cyber teams to full capability in the next two years. 

Even when they reach that stage, officials will still have to keep pace with emerging tech tools and cyber-attack tactics, according to Ben FitzGerald, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who previously worked as an executive for technology companies with defense contracts.

"Cyber Comm is still going through a process of establishing the command and control arrangements between their teams, and the support they provide to rest of the Department of Defense, and that’s going to take time to figure out," FitzGerald said. "The key challenge is will they be able to adapt and keep making changes as rapidly as they need to?"

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