The Complex

Inside one of U.S. Cyber Command's offensive units

Ever wonder how long it takes to get one of the U.S. Army's best cyber operators trained and ready to conduct high-end offensive operations? About five years, according to the Army's top intelligence official.

"These are not soldiers that are coming out of Dover High School in New Hampshire. These are soldiers that need a lot of time and training, coming out of our best universities," said Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence during an Oct. 23 speech at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington, where she discussed the Army's 780th Military Intelligence Brigade.

The brigade is a custom-made cyber warfare unit being built up at Fort Meade, Md., and Fort Gordon, Ga., to conduct some of the most sophisticated cyber operations around the world. As the Army's contribution to U.S. Cyber Command, the 780th is responsible for hunting down enemy hackers, figuring out how they operate, and developing cyber weapons to use against a host of online targets.

These soldiers work outside the Pentagon's firewalls to "detect threats against our networks, to characterize where those threats are coming from, and to provide early warning to [Army network] defenders, to provide early warning to [Army] hunters inside the network who will look to cut that threat off."

Although Legere said the soldiers are chiefly looking for threats, she also called them offensive troops.

Her comments come as the Defense Department -- and the private sector -- embrace the philosophy of "active defense" in the cyber realm. The principle of active defense maintains that the best defense includes offensive actions, such as hunting for enemy hackers, learning about their techniques, determining where they are, figuring out how to foil attacks by them, and when needed, attacking them. 

The Fort Meade-headquartered unit is working its way to being at two battalions' size and is made up of civilians and soldiers who have high math and logic skills, according to the three-star general. "These are the kinds of basic skills we need for our cyber warriors who are on the offensive side," said Legere.

Once accepted to the 780th, soldiers can expect to wait up to five years before being trusted with the highest-priority cyber missions.

"Once they're in that unit they have a series of developmental [work] assignments that, in some cases, take three to five years to build," said Legere. "So if you're looking at the very, very best of our capability, those soldiers who will be trained to do the hardest work of understanding to how to characterize the threat, how to build the solution and how to potentially create" an offensive cyber weapon.

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