U.S. Cyber Command at Ft. Meade, Maryland.

U.S. Cyber Command at Ft. Meade, Maryland. U.S. Cyber Command / Josef Cole

Faster Attacks Have Cyber Command Looking to Add All-Too-Scarce Experts

“I think the only way that I'm going to be able to do that in the near term is to grow the workforce myself,” command official says.

U.S. Cyber Command is looking to expand its acquisition shop and buy the tools it needs to keep pace with digital warfare. But it’ll have to contend with a tight labor market where technical talent is in high demand. 

“Recently as two or three years ago,” said Michael Clark, the command’s director of cyber acquisition and technology, “when a new vulnerability was identified in a in a piece of software, or even a piece of hardware, it was probably six months to a year before we would see adversaries throwing [it] at us, as an exploit to try to break into our networks or achieve an outcome against us.” 

That timeframe has now shortened to hours, Clark said, and it’s a major technical challenge to keep up and “accelerate beyond” adversaries. So the command is looking to industry to help do for cyber tools what the Air Force’s Kessel Run has done for software development

“I can envision a future, kind of like the way the Air Force does Kessel Run, where operators…[pull] down a library of AI tools or ML tools, and or the ability to rapidly code something that achieves an outcome on demand of operations.” 

To do that, Cyber Command needs more acquisition personnel. Clark said the command is looking to hire about 40 experienced people in the next year, plus another 20 recent college graduates for entry-level positions. By 2024, the command is hoping to get another 50 acquisition personnel.

But he’s competing with much of the U.S. government, not to mention the defense and technology industries

“It's a rare unicorn when I can find somebody that has both the acquisition bonafides...And then also understands cyber operations or have done cyber operations. So I think the only way that I'm going to be able to do that in the near term is to grow the workforce myself.”

U.S. Cyber Command’s acquisition journey started with a $75 million budget that largely flowed through the military services but now directly spends nearly ten times that much. New budget authorities allow the command to handle $3 billion to cover DOD’s cyber operations needs

“At the same time, our responsibilities have grown from approximately, as I said $75 million here, to today we're executing over $700 million a year. And as we look to the future, the command is posturing based on department guidance, to assume responsibility for approximately $3 billion of funds,” Clark said, speaking from an industry procurement event at the command’s DreamPort facilities. “That's directly related to our responsibility [for] ensuring the readiness of the cyber operations forces. So incredible growth, incredible change in terms of how the command, and how the department is posturing Cyber Command, to take on acquisition responsibilities.”

The acquisition directorate is also preparing to absorb responsibilities for the Joint Cyber Weapons Architecture, which is made up of several components, including the Persistent Cyber Training Environment, the Joint Cyber Command and Control, Unified Platform, the Joint Cyber Access Platform. They’re used for cyber operations but currently managed by the military services, not Cyber Command.

“But it was recognized the department needed to invest greater explicit authority to direct technical control, and systems integration across all of that with the design purpose of achieving a cyber operations weapons platform.”

And as the command gets more responsibility, the hope is that efficiencies (and cost savings) can come with it to help the military services better achieve their cyber objectives through the JCWA.

“Every service is buying the same data from the vendors, right, there's got to be a more efficient way of doing that. Cloud services, we're all buying cloud services. So [are] there efficiencies that can be gained?” Clark said. “Because as we take on the responsibility…as we build the budgets, right, it's gonna be our responsibility to get the best value.”

A Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year that found the command doesn’t yet have the metrics needed to justify acquisitions of new capabilities, particularly amid workforce constraints. “The intent is to get a pipeline of people that I mature to and then want to stay in the command because of the mission that we have,” Clark said, noting that the aim was to cultivate the same fervor that surrounds special operations forces for cyber. “Everybody wants to be a special operations forces guy. I want to create—and Gen. [Paul] Nakasone wants to create—that esprit de corps around cyber operations forces to do that.”