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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National Security

The Army wants to develop a new generation of cyber weapons

The U.S. Army is conducting a new study to identify the cyber weapons it needs to develop, the service's top cyber officer said today.

"We're working hard with mission command as well as with [Army Space and Missile Defense Command] to work our way through an initial capabilities requirements document to determine what gaps we believe we have [in cyber and other elecronic weaponry]. . . to support tactical and operational requirements," said Lt. Gen. Rhett Hernandez, commander of Army Cyber Command during a speech at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington today.

Translated into English, that means that the service will look at the specific cyber effects that it needs on the battlefield (for example, taking over an enemy's communications networks or wreaking havoc on a base's power supplies) and it will then figure out the new weapons it needs to produce those effects.

This study "will produce a set of requirements that will drive an expanded level of capabilities beyond what we have today," added Hernandez.

These weapons could be in the form of more traditional electronic warfare (EW) tools such as those carried aboard aircraft or they could be advanced software weapons.

 "As we identify those requirements that I think we see -- again, cyber or cyber related, whether you argue that it's EW or not --  it's part of that capability set that I think we'll be looking for and it's any capability that allows us to achieve it whether its airborne on the ground or others," said Hernandez in response to a reporters question as to whether or not the service will look at airborne weapons.

Pentagon officials have traditionally been extremely tight-lipped about their offensive abilities in the cyber realm. However, this summer, Army and Marine Corps cyber officials acknowledged that they have conducted offensive cyber operations against the Taliban and that the services are developing ways for battlefield commanders to call for cyber fire support.

The Army is also developing a philosophy of "active defense" in cyberspace, much as the U.S. Air Force is doing. Active defense -- the tenets of which can border on offensive operations -- calls for defenders to snoop the networks of potential enemies and even hunt for hackers who are bent on attacking Army networks.

Also at the AUSA conference, Lt. Gen. Don Campbell, commander of III Corps, said the service and the nation as a whole must figure out rules of engagement for cyber weapons. "How far can we go to target this network or that network or capability or system, we're going to have to decide as a service or military," he said.

Hernandez did not say when the study will be done. Killer Apps has asked Army cyber for more information on this, we'll update when we hear back from them.

U.S. Army