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Cyber guardsmen could defend domestic networks

Jun. 26, 2013 - 03:21PM   |  
The National Guard should form teams of cyber warriors to respond to attacks on vital domestic computer networks, said Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
The National Guard should form teams of cyber warriors to respond to attacks on vital domestic computer networks, said Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. ()
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The National Guard should form teams of cyber warriors to respond to attacks on vital domestic computer networks, said Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

The teams would be ready with cyber support for state governors as needed, in addition to their role defending National Guard networks, Grass told Army Times in a May 29 interview.

The bureau is working on a concept with the staff of Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.

A bipartisan Senate bill calls for “Cyber Guards” in every state, trained and prepared to respond to cases of cyber and network attacks.

The bill suggests the Guard can fill this role under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, which makes them responsible for supporting the Department of Homeland Security and state governors in responding to natural disasters.

The Guard soldiers and airmen would have to be trained to the same standard as active-duty Army and Air Force cyber personnel, Grass said. The units would be designed like those services’ units and certified “just as any other component of the military services,” he said.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned Congress that cyber attacks pose the highest threat to national security. The Defense Science Board, an advisory panel, warned in a report this year that new steps must be taken to hire and train cyber warriors because it is “not clear that high-end cyber practitioners can be found in sufficient numbers within typical recruitment pools.”

The teams could be activated by the state governor or defense secretary, similar to the Guard’s civil response teams that can deploy when there is a threat or use of weapons of mass destruction in a U.S. city.

A mix of full-time active-duty and Guard members would have private-sector expertise in information technology.

The teams — tied to a state or region of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — would be used by governors to defend networks and assess vulnerability. These teams could be called to service under Army Cyber Command or Air Force Cyber Command.

The idea is being pursued cautiously. Language in the National Defense Authorization Act calls for the chief of the National Guard Bureau to provide an assessment of the National Guard’s role in supporting the Defense Department’s cyber operations mission. The act calls for more study of the reserve component’s potential role, as well as the implications and limitations of using National Guard forces in a Title 32 capacity, before broader action is taken.

Also in the NDAA, the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed concern over the estimated $400 million annual cost of fielding these units in each state, and called the legislation “premature” and potentially “detrimental to the overall national effort.” It notes that the proposals omit the reserve components’ “unique authorities and capabilities.”

But cyber operations are a great fit for the Guard for several reasons, said Charlie Dunlap, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University and the former deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force.

“Obviously, they can more readily tap into the civilian sector where so much of the cyber talent is found,” he said. “There may be a lot of people willing to serve as part-time soldiers who already have a lot of expertise that was acquired on their civilian job.”

Alexander has faced questions in Congress over domestic surveillance in two recently disclosed programs — one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism — that are deemed critical in the terrorism fight.

Given these concerns, Dunlap said the Guard’s citizen-soldiers would be well suited to the job.

“Among other things, their direct link to local communities and civilian society in general allows them to bring an extra measure of sensitivity to civil liberties and privacy rights,” he said. “Almost by definition, they have a better sense of what most Americans would find appropriate, and this could help ensure the military doesn’t overstep its bounds in the cyber realm.”

Alexander has noted the “technical expertise” the Guard has in Maryland, Delaware and Washington and said in congressional testimony last year that U.S. Cyber Command is working with Guard members there.

In practice

The Guard has deployed 54 eight-soldier teams around the country to defend GuardNet, the Guard’s mission command network. The network supports eight divisions and 28 brigades, as well as 3,000 armories across the U.S.

Members of these Cyber Network Defense Teams have not historically received formal training through the Guard, though that is changing, according to Col. Mary Henry, the Army National Guard’s chief information officer/G-6. However, team members tend to have highly sought-after skills, certifications and experience acquired through civilian IT jobs, she said.

“We have some civilian-acquired skills that no one else has,” Henry said.

Henry called for standardized cyber training across the Defense Department, to include the National Guard, so that all branches can coordinate better. “We have to come at this as one, so we’re synchronized,” she said.

The teams combine civilian experience with formal military training. Members with signal backgrounds tend to be 25B information technology specialists, under Functional Area 53, which denotes IT engineering. Several warrant officers are 255S cyberspace defense technicians.

Grass said the Guard would not require large numbers of troops to expand this program to protect domestic computer networks. He said the concept in discussion calls for platoon-size elements.

“We’re talking about a small footprint, but if they’re trained right, certified to the standard of [U.S.] CYBERCOM, they can be a very powerful in states,” Grass said.

Staff writer Rick Maze contributed to this report.

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