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America’s secret weapon against cyber attacks? Try a new military for cyber crimes

July 9, 2015, 4:51 PM UTC
A man is seen near cyber code and the U.S. National Security Agency logo in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo
A man is seen near cyber code and the U.S. National Security Agency logo in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo March 11, 2015.
Photograph by Dado Ruvic — Reuters

If 2014 was the “year of the hack,” the recent theft of millions of Federal records is a watershed event in our national security. More than any prior information security breach, the sheer magnitude and scope of this cyber event catalyzed the perilous link between our information and our way of life.

In the coming weeks and months, much will be said and written about how we as a nation must respond to this growing crisis. Just as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was formed in the 1990s to fortify our military counterterrorism posture, our nation needs to build a new approach to deal with this significant threat.

There is another, equally critical area where both government and industry must come together: how we prepare the homeland on a long-term basis to defend against a new cyber form of warfare and economic conflict. We must go back to first principles in thinking this through.

It is time for the nation to create a sixfth branch of the military dedicated to cyber security and for that branch to have its own service academy, steeped in the same traditions and run with the same principles as West Point and the other US service academies, which have proven to be effective through generations.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation to establish the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Devoted to the country’s development of a professional military and our conduct of warfare, it also cherished academic performance, honorable conduct and military discipline alongside military art and science. It represents and reflects a democratic nation. Its graduates have provided many generations of leaders in the military, government, commerce and civil society, including three presidents that graduated from United States Service academies.

It is not surprising that West Point developed a strong focus on civil engineering, underpinning both commerce and defense during our nation’s emergence just prior to the industrial revolution. This military focus on engineering persisted across the post–World War II era and provided an additional critical element for fostering economic development.

Indeed, the nation’s service leadership academies, including West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy, have not stood still and have invested considerable efforts in cyber security. However, we must create a government/military institution that is exclusively missioned to protect our data and safeguard the role it plays in our society. The stakes have never been higher for this issue.

Information technology is the civil engineering of the new American economy. Information is the fifth factor of production. It is inside every good and service we produce and consume; it is a component of our national defense. Increasingly, it is the new proving ground for warfare and economic espionage and it requires bringing the same discipline of national security strategy and engineering ingenuity to protect it.

Moreover, we need the same civil and moral leadership built into West Point to be present as we safeguard our data and deal with foreign and domestic cyber threats. We need the same link to civil institutions and national values as we marshal our cyber defenses.

The cyber struggle will not be a black-and-white war. Non-state actors play a significant role in the threat universe and there are frequently gray lines between government and non-government actions, which can be difficult to clearly articulate and understand. Think how much work went into building America’s response to terrorism. The interplay between military, intelligence and economic implications are even more nuanced and interconnected in cyber, yet paralysis is no longer an option.

We already have thousands of talented cyber defense professionals in the military, FBI, secret service and intelligence agencies charged with defending our nation and economy against cyber attack and espionage. However this core of dedicated professionals is not adequately sized to defend against the growing cyber forces that threaten us. China, alone, is said to have more that 100,000 cyber professionals conducting both military and economic espionage operations, according to former NSA Director Mike McConnell in a March speech.

A dedicated military branch with its own academy for cyber, modeled after West Point and the other academies, would benefit considerably from a public-private partnership. It should work with and draw on our best technical talent which is clustered in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Austin and other technology hubs, as well as hundreds of universities around the country.

Cyber requires a unique military discipline, not just an intelligence operation, to be globally effective. Not only does the promise of a sixth branch of service focused on cyber threats promise strong offensive and defensive capabilities, it potentially will help deter state-sponsored aggression targeting the U.S. And it will bind the nation, across social, geographic and political lines, on building a long-lasting institution to lead the way in defending our country and economy in the 21st century.

Andrew Rubin is founder and CEO of Illumio, a Sunnyvale, CA-based cybersecurity company.