Republic of Korea, 2002 — a new second lieutenant on his first battalion live-fire exercise watched it quickly descend into chaos.
One of the battalion’s 18 cannons would not digitally link with the fire direction center — a critical shortcoming in combat.
For more than an hour, crewmembers and noncommissioned officers toiled in vain to troubleshoot while the discontent of waiting commanders became increasingly vocal.
Finally the lieutenant, mostly out of boredom, thought to have a look for himself.
Pushing his way into the crowded crew compartment, he quickly realized he knew almost nothing about the system compared to the decades of experience immediately surrounding him. Yet perhaps that unfamiliarity led him to notice an almost trivial error: the date had been incorrectly entered on the fire control computer.
When the supervisor corrected the error — voila — the system worked perfectly, and with great relief the exercise resumed.
This anecdote, recounted by one of my officers, underscores a fundamental truth: Cyber, like all technology, is ultimately about people.
At that time, defense systems were becoming increasingly reliant on computers and digital networks. Yet few — if any — troops expected that an adversary might intentionally inflict misinformation as trivial as the wrong date into a weapon system. Moreover, finding such a glitch might be a matter of dumb luck.
Today, our tanks, howitzers and helicopters, even logistics management and delivery systems, are increasingly digitized and networked. It is a certainty that our soldiers must be ready for such an attempt.
This technology has spectacular battlefield effects: Our commanders are better able to understand where their troops are and where the enemy is, and provide the ability to avoid noncombatant protected sites, such as churches, hospitals and schools. Computers enable our weapons to shoot faster and more accurately, increasingly able to destroy an enemy while avoiding collateral damage and adding a layer of protection for civilians. Digitization brings our troops food, fuel and ammunition faster and more precisely, cutting the need for stockpiles and shortening logistical trains.
Yet with fantastic capabilities, technology also brings unexpected vulnerabilities. Determined adversaries may disrupt our systems and capabilities in ways we had not imagined. Where once the only way to defeat a tank on the battlefield was by opposing physical force, now an almost trivial error introduced into the system’s navigation computer or fire control system might render it ineffective.
The Army Cyber Command, the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and the Army Cyber Center of Excellence have begun the work of developing a ready cyber force dedicated to offensive and defensive cyber operations. The Army — alongside its sister services — has devoted significant resources, starting with people. The skills required for those who establish, maintain and defend our networks are more than one person could possibly provide. In just a few short years, the Army has launched a dedicated career field for cyber soldiers, trained hundreds of these soldiers and civilians alike to high standards in cyber operations, built 41 cyber mission force teams that are now operating and defending our nation in cyberspace, and integrated cyber operations into our traditional ground combat strategy.
We are making progress in reimagining how we recruit, educate and train cyber operators with the requisite skills — technical, but also critical and creative. For example, in addition to their education and training, the Army’s Cyber Leader Development Program brings West Point and ROTC cadets outstanding opportunities outside the classroom. The result is an Army cyber force that will be able to operate and maintain our systems and understand the complexities of how our enemies may try to defeat us.
In addition to new people, we’ve launched a cultural shift across the Army. Even a few years ago, a soldier needed nothing more than a checklist to maintain their vehicle. Today, that same soldier must be integrated into a larger effort to verify digital systems, understanding all the ways our enemies might try seek to disable them. Behind this soldier must be an interdisciplinary team ready to investigate and inform the Army of new and evolving threats and vulnerabilities.
Leading this effort is the Army Cyber Institute. We have established it with Army officers of broad tactical expertise and civilian researchers with expertise across the academic spectrum. This allows us to tailor support and research to emerging policy and strategic concerns, ultimately yielding a more tactically capable Army. Our researchers are not looking just at today’s problems; they are asking what’s next and developing partnerships with academia and industry to find solutions. The result is critical to maintaining and expanding our technological advantages and cyber resiliency.
Teamwork among formerly distinct specialists in signal, military intelligence and special operations is accelerating this effort. U.S. Army soldiers will still have checklists, and technical glitches will still disrupt training exercises. But tomorrow’s soldiers will be better able to defend our nation, both on the battlefield and in cyberspace, thanks to the research the Army Cyber Institute is conducting in partnership with the Army Cyber Command, the Army Cyber Center of Excellence, academia and industry.
• Col. Andrew O. Hall is director of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. A graduate of West Point, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is a U.S. Army cyber officer and veteran of numerous operational assignments. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense nor the Department of the Army.