Victory on future battlefields will require an overhaul of cyber training, planning and acquisition, according to a top Marine cyber warrior.
Well, that, and also simply getting the rest of the operational force to understand just what cyber is and what it can do for them in combat, said Col. Gregory Breazile, director of the Marine Corps' C2/Cyber and Electronic Warfare Integration Division.
Breazile said the service is scrambling to dominate the electronic and cyber warfare domains and has already taken steps to ensure those capabilities can be brought to bear on enemy forces with devastating effect, all while protecting the Corps' own ability to communicate and maneuver.
"We want to have our operational folks understand that cyberspace is another capability they should be planning for," Breazile said during a mid-April panel discussion at this year's Sea-Air-Space exposition. "They don't even understand the capabilities that we have."
The panel included Navy and Coast Guard officials who echoed Breazile's message.
"The toughest part of cyber is getting other people to understand cyber," said Rear Adm. Marshall Lytle, the Coast Guard's acting deputy commandant for mission support. "I joke cyber is spelled with a 'Y' but we have a lot of folks who think it is spelled with an 'I.' We need to make sure we make them part of the solution and not part of the problem."
The speakers stressed that all leaders, not just cyber experts, must have a fundamental understanding of cyber and electronic warfare capabilities and fully leverage those assets by incorporating them into their planning from the outset.
But for tactical commanders to effectively use cyber on the battlefield, cyber networks must be available and defended — "goal one," in the words of Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, who leads U.S. Fleet Cyber Command.
For the Marine Corps, many of the challenges in delivering a cyber capability to tactical commanders are multiplied, given the service's expeditionary crisis response mission that will see Marines increasingly operate in austere environments far removed from robust support like what they had on the ground in Afghanistan.
That is especially true as the service continues rolling out its new Expeditionary Force-21 operational concept, which pushes small units forward during dispersed operations covering large geographical areas.
To meet those challenges, Breazile outlined ongoing efforts in several areas:
Training. Last fall, the Corps opened a cyber range at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, that serves as a testing and training bed for cyber equipment and operators. More importantly, the range provides for integration of cyber operations into large-scale MAGTF exercises like Bold Alligator.
On the cyber range, Marines with Bold Alligator dropped into what is akin to a traditional Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) trainer, but outfitted with nodes that broadcast simulated communications, everything from e-mail traffic to phone calls.
Most of it was benign communications that would be found up in any urban setting, but tucked into it were messages from a criminal network looking to buy a weapons system and attack Marines.
Marines were able to parse much of those messages out of the traffic, but processing and acting on the information quickly presented challenges during the exercise that will serve as building blocks for future improvements in cyber operations, leaders said.
Education. Robust cyber capabilities will do little or nothing on the battlefield if operational commanders don't have a solid understanding of the capability and make cyber and electronic warfare part of their war planning from the start, Breazile said.
To capture that philosophy, the service released interim guidance, "MAGTF Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Coordination Cell Concept," last spring, outlining a way forward so MAGTF commanders have cyber advisers on hand to help during initial operational planning.
Much of the new philosophy was put to the test for the first time at Bold Alligator in November, Breazile said.
"We learned a lot through that, be we also learned we have a long way to go to get into the minds of planners that this is an important and essential part of their planning process," he said.
But even if efforts to give cyber a higher profile during planning and execution of tactical operations are successful, Marines working to penetrate a contested area will need electronic warfare capabilities to deliver those attacks against communications infrastructure and weapons systems.
"Future operations will be enabled through the EW spectrum," Breazile said. "When we look at cyber, it depends on that spectrum."
That means that in addition to growing the Corps' stable of cyber warriors, the need remains to have electronic warfare payloads on Marine AV-8B Harriers and F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, he said.
Moreover, he added, those aircraft must be organic to the MAGTF. The Corps has had a robust EW capability for decades through its Prowler fleet, but those have been mostly assigned to joint operations, Breazile said, meaning they answer not to the MAGTF, but to a joint commander with broader goals.
Procurement. The area in need of the most improvement is the Defense Department's procurement process for cyber capabilities, officials said.
The traditional process is designed to procure gear and large platforms that can take years to develop. But cyber threats change and evolve on a monthly basis.
"Traditional acquisition cannot keep up with the pace of changes in cyber operations," Breazile said. "We must change the institution to meet that reality."
The challenge becomes keeping up with agile state and non-state threats — all the way down to individual hackers who can wreak havoc on military networks.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine Corps had success in rapidly fielding badly needed equipment to meet critical needs as insurgents innovated new tactics.
Ideally, the service would develop the means to procure cyber capabilities even more quickly than that, while preserving security — meaning that systems are vetted and vulnerabilities identified and patched before they're fielded. That's where the service's new Quantico cyber range could prove key.