Pentagon To Dramatically Expand 'Cyber Warrior' Force

The Pentagon has approved plans for a five-fold increase in its cyberwar fighting force. The U.S. Cyber Command would see its ranks jump from 900 to 4,900, including both uniformed and civilian personnel. Defense officials say the boost in the cybersecurity force is necessary because of the nation's growing vulnerability to cyber attacks and also the need to prepare for more offensive cyber combat operations. But there is already a shortage of cyber specialists, and the new recruitment effort would increase the competition for skilled personnel within the government and the private sector. Audie Cornish talks to Tom Gjelten.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

And we begin this hour with talk of America's cybersecurity and All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: The U.S. military is facing the prospect of serious budget cuts in the coming months, but one area is set to grow. Defense officials say they are planning a huge increase in its force of cyber warriors.

Right now, about 900 troops and civilians are assigned to Cyber Command. The Pentagon intends to boost that number to nearly 5,000, making the Cyber Command a major war-fighting force.

Joining us now to talk more about it is NPR's Tom Gjelten. And, Tom, to start, why the big increase and why now?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, it's really the culmination of a couple of ideas. One, this notion that the country is really vulnerable to cyberattack. Second, that wars, from here on, are likely to involve a lot of cyber combat. One Pentagon official told me today that this plan responds to the reality that the country could soon face a cyberattack as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11. In other words, one that would paralyze the nation.

We're seeing more of these attacks every day, against both civilian and military networks. And then, the second thing, is this recognition that the military needs to be able to carry out offensive operations in cyber. It needs to add cyberattacks to part of its general war fighting capabilities. You would need a lot more cyber warriors if you were going to be serious about that.

CORNISH: So what exactly would these 4,000 additional cyber warriors be doing?

GJELTEN: The plan is to organize this force into three so-called mission areas. There would be a national mission to protect the computer networks that now control operations in power plants, transportation systems, telecommunication, basically the country's critical infrastructure, helping to defend those networks in particular from attacks that originate abroad.

Then, there would be these combat mission teams that would have the military responsibility to go on the attack against enemy computer networks. And finally, third, there would be a so-called cyber protection force. They'd be responsible specifically for protecting military networks.

CORNISH: So are we talking about adding additional military personnel or actually additional civilian personnel?

GJELTEN: That's not clear yet. Presumably both. But, you know, Audie, this raises the question, where is the Pentagon going to find these people? Because unless you have a massive new training program, essentially you're playing a zero sum game here. You're talking about cyberpersonnel who would have really advanced skills and there's already a shortage of these people in the country.

Every bank and power company is looking to hire these people. You know, it's said that the country needs altogether, Audie, as many as 30 or 40,000 of these people. One specialist told me today we have about 1,000.

CORNISH: So you're saying someone's going to be short-changed.

GJELTEN: Inevitably, there's going to be competition between agencies, competition between the government and the private sector, you know, likely to get into a bidding war. You know, the Department of Homeland Security, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says she wants to hire 600 additional people. So you're going to have agencies competing with each other for a limited number of cyberspecialists.

CORNISH: But realistically how far along is the plan. I mean, will Congress actually need to approve it, I assume?

GJELTEN: That depends on how exactly it's implemented. The Pentagon says this plan is, quote, "pre-decisional." I'm not sure exactly what the means, but it means that a lot of the details haven't been ironed out, I guess. If it's a matter of reducing numbers in the non-cyber area of the military in order to create new positions in the cyber area with no net change in the total numbers, then presumably the military could just go ahead, the Pentagon could go ahead on its own. If what you're talking about is really major, then presumably Congress would want to have a say.

CORNISH: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thank you.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Audie.

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