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Government Needs to be ‘Postured for the Future’ of Cyber Threats

The shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals that has faced the private sector for years is now becoming an increasingly thorny issue for the military and the United States government agencies, as both defensive and offensive cyber operations become a larger part of the national security picture.

Each branch of the U.S. military has a sizeable force of trained cyber operators, united under U.S. Cyber Command, as do the National Security Agency, CIA, and other intelligence agencies. Those teams each have their own missions and areas of operation, and the competition for people with the specific background and skill sets they require is fierce, not only in the military but also in the private sector, where the financial rewards are exponentially higher. Finding the people who are willing to apply their skills in the military or government agencies can be difficult, and it’s a challenge that is becoming ever more pressing as foreign adversaries continue to use cyber operations for disruption, espionage, and financial gain. The traditional avenues of recruitment and talent development have proven effective, but they may not be enough in the near future.

“We need as large a pool of people as possible. Cyberspace is where the nation stores its wealth and treasure. Data science, coding, artificial intelligence, machine learning are all capabilities that we need,” Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, said in a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Nakasone said that the U.S. government has the people it needs to be effective at the moment, but that likely won’t be good enough in the near future. The threat landscape changes quickly and defenders need to be able to keep pace, both in terms of technology and skilled operators.

"It’s the mission that attracts people to work in this field."

“We need to be postured for the future. As good as our technology is, it always comes back to people. We need more for the future.”

Both the military and the intelligence community have been training grounds for talented security specialists for decades, and those environments offer the opportunity to work on problems and operations that no private-sector company can match. But the monetary rewards available in the private sector far outstrip what the federal government can offer, which makes talent retention a significant challenge. What can makes the difference, Nakasone said, is the sense of purpose and accomplishment that comes along with the work the IC and military do.

“We have work to do to keep trained cyber warriors in the service. It’s us being able to do the advanced training that’s necessary for them to be effective members of our teams,” Nakasone said.

“Once we train an operator within our force, we’re very very reluctant to have them do anything other than cyber, and most of those people, all they want to do is cyber.”

Even with those challenges, Nakasone is confident that the government and military can continue to attract and train enough cyber operators.

“The ability to attract and focus on the mission, on what really gets done here. It’s the mission that attracts people to work in this field,” he said.