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Navy wants 1,000 more cyber warriors

Apr. 23, 2013 - 04:25PM   |  
Cryptologic technicians test a new system at the Center for Information Dominance in Pensacola, Fla. The Navy is set to grow its cyber fleet by 1,000 sailors and leadership will consider conversions to other ratings.
Cryptologic technicians test a new system at the Center for Information Dominance in Pensacola, Fla. The Navy is set to grow its cyber fleet by 1,000 sailors and leadership will consider conversions to other ratings. (Gary Nichols / Navy)
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Cryptologic technicians test a new system at the Center for Information Dominance in Pensacola, Fla. The Navy is set to grow its cyber fleet by 1,000 sailors and leadership will consider conversions to other ratings. (Gary Nichols / Navy)


Fleet Cyber Command/10th Fleet is poised to grow by 1,000 jobs by fiscal 2016. A look at its present makeup:
Staffing levels: More than 15,000 people — 1,400 officers, 10,500 enlisted, and 3,500 civilians and contractors.
Officer breakdown: Most come from information warfare, information professional and intelligence communities.
Enlisted breakdown: 6,129 cryptologic technicians; 2,229 information systems technicians; 344 intelligence specialists; six aerographer’s mates; and sailors in support roles including yeomen, legalmen, masters-at-arms and Seabees.
Know your stuff: These rates, a Fleet Forces Command spokesman said, require Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test scores second only to nuclear-qualified sailors.
Work anywhere: While the Navy divides the world’s geography into numbered fleets, the 10th Fleet is the only one without a physical feature — it exists entirely in cyberspace. The sailors in the 10th Fleet, however, are on ships, subs, squadrons and other facilities. Cyber Command is based at Fort George G. Meade, Md., an Army installation also home to U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.

Think you have what it takes to be a cyber warrior? The head of Fleet Cyber Forces said his command is looking to grow and any sailor can be considered for a job. That means they’re not just looking at cryptos or ITs to fill spots, but wrench-turners, too.

The Navy is casting such a wide net because leaders know “hacking” isn’t something just taught in the classroom.

“You will find some people in ratings you would think would have nothing to do with cyber. [But] on a personal basis because of interest and background, they offer great skill,” said Vice Adm. Michael Rogers in a recent sit-down with Navy Times.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told Congress on April 16 that the cyber force will grow by 1,000 personnel by fiscal 2016. That’s on top of 800 billets realigned this year from other specialties.

So if you’ve developed unique computer and/or hacking skills in your spare time, you might want to consider a career change. The field can merit big bonuses while you’re in and a six-figure salary when you leave.

“If you are not excited by the opportunity that cyber represents to the Navy … then you do not have a pulse,” Rogers said.

It’s been more than three years since the service officially stood up its group of super-secret hackers, and the command is looking for more people who can finesse their way around a computer network, test an enemy’s defense and raid hostile servers in sabotage missions fought with a keyboard and mouse.

It’s become more important than ever for sailors to be able to wage that type of attack — and defend friendly networks from similar efforts by those trying to disrupt communications and unlock encrypted data, Rogers said.

“Sometimes those missions might be reconnaissance of terrain. Sometimes those mission sets might be, ‘Hey, I want you to gain access to a particular capability.’ Sometimes those mission sets might be, ‘Hey, I want you to install the following defensive scheme on some of our network capabilities,’” Rogers said.

It’s a secretive field — Rogers wouldn’t name enemies or targets.

(Page 2 of 7)

But the headlines speak for themselves. Nearly every federal government agency, as well as many private organizations, have traced a digital breach to China. One defense contractor connected a single Chinese military unit to 140 attacks in six years, including 115 in the U.S., according to Mandiant, a network security and cyber threat analysis company, in a March report.

Besides other nations with their own cyber forces, there are “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous with interests that clash with U.S. government policies, subnational groups akin to terrorist organizations, and “lone wolf” hackers who could act independently of all of the above.

Can I join?

Rogers estimates that 4 in 5 new cyber warriors will be uniformed personnel. If you’re interesting in switching to cyber, he encourages you to apply.

“You have got to be willing to think out of the box in a nonlinear way. You have got to be flexible and adaptable. Because if you look at the highest-end cyber warriors — the Jedi knight kinds of people — it is a little bit like flying a strike in,” Rogers said, comparing cyberwarfare to a fighter squadron mission.

Before the strike lead goes out on a sortie, they receive the best briefing possible about the target. But when they actually lead a division into position, they may encounter threats they weren’t expecting —different terrain or heartier radar coverage, for example.

A good strike lead will adapt and finish the mission, Rogers said. A good cyber warrior will do the same.

“Hey, we will try to make sure you have the best knowledge of what that cyber terrain looks like,” he said. “We will try and ensure you to have the best knowledge that we have about what the basic structure of that network looks like, but once you get on that keyboard and you are over the target, as it were … I hope we got the brief perfectly right, but we do not always. So now I need an adaptive individual.”

Typically, they look at sailors no more senior than E-6. By the time you’re a chief, he said, you’re going to be supervising other sailors and should be an expert in your field.

(Page 3 of 7)

There are no required certifications to enter the field, but having a handful won’t hurt, a cyber forces spokesman said. For information systems technicians, CompTIA Network+, Microsoft Certified Professional or SANS GIAC Security Essentials certifications make better candidates. For cryptologic technician ratings, networking, network security, computer forensics and language skills help.

Cryptologic technicians (network) are the crux of cyberwarfare and are typically trained in computer hardware and architecture, networking concepts and designs, protocol analysis, Windows and Unix, programming, network defense and forensics.

But these certifications don’t matter, provided you have the proper skill set. Rogers said 10th Fleet has been “very lucky” in landing sailors from nontraditional cyber ratings.

And when nearly 3,000 sailors were booted recently by two enlisted retention boards, Rogers said his command screened the list for cyberwarfare candidates.

“We sent thousands of people home who have done great work for us,” Rogers said of the ERB. “Even as we were doing that, we were working within those people to identify, hey, who has got a cyber skill?”

Forty-three sailors denied retention under the ERB were ultimately able to convert to cyber-related ratings, Navy officials said.

If you are interested in cyber, the first step is to talk to your career counselor, Rogers said. Tenth Fleet is looking for strong scores on the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery test, but it also wants to know what makes you stand out.

“What is it in addition to your traditional testing … what is it about you that you would tell us makes you a strong cyber candidate?” Rogers asked.

He also has to consider whether you are in an undermanned rating.

“If you are in a rate that is grossly undermanned right now, then remember, we have to go think about tradeoffs as a service,” he advised.

But if you’re interested, Rogers said, “Let us know.”

If you’re in the field, you could receive a selective re-enlistment bonus of between $45,000 and $75,000, depending on your rating and SRB zone.

(Page 4 of 7)

There are also opportunities for officers to transfer into the information warfare, intelligence and information professional communities. These are mostly for officers who are lieutenants and below, and not in zone for lieutenant commander in fiscal 2014.

Success stories

IS1 (SW/EXW) Jamie Thibeault was a substitute history teacher and maître d’ at a country club before enlisting in 2006. He served aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, completed training at Navy Marine Corps Intelligence Center in Dam Neck, Va., and provided intel support to SEAL teams in Iraq before arriving in 10th Fleet in April 2010.

While he didn’t have much time in the military before joining 10th Fleet, the newness of the field meant there weren’t many other sailors who could do the work and the variety of work. For example, he got to help build the operational watch rotation.

“I often compare it to the early days of naval aviation,” he said. “Nobody knew how this new technology, this new capability, would fill out.”

The time in uniform yields practical experience, as well. IT2 (SW) Phillip Swartzlander has been in for 2½ years and picked the field because it gives him good opportunities in the private sector. Industry figures and job postings for tech companies with offices near 10th Fleet’s Fort Meade, Md., headquarters show six-figure civilian salaries are very common.

But despite the significant opportunities in the outside world, Swartzlander likes his current work and is likely to re-enlist, he said.

Rogers said retention is strong, in part because of the “warrior ethos” the command instills in sailors.

“That is something that you do not find on the outside,” Rogers said. “That is why we have been able to compete very well with the outside sector.”

Cryptologic Technician (Networks)2nd Class (IDW) Terrence Savala came in with an interest in computer systems, but no rigorous training. Before reporting to recruit training in 2004, Savala was just out of high school, where he focused heavily on information technology.

(Page 5 of 7)

His first few years in the Navy, he focused on maintaining the service’s networks before moving into cyberwarfare. He monitors data and where it’s going and looks for suspicious activity to pop.

“If it’s a bad thing, I wouldn’t say it’s a burst of excitement, but it does kick up the work cycle a lot,” he said.

In that way, it’s like every other domain. But it’s also a different field.

“The fact that it’s fast-paced — that’s the war we’re fighting in. It’s not pencils and paper; it’s not tanks and guns any more. It’s bits and pieces and networks going across our country.”

While the Navy’s cyber force is a new field, it’s developing into a set of “quiet professionals,” Thibeault said. They take their work seriously because the world is tightly networked together, creating vulnerabilities that could be exploited and create major consequences.

But they also see themselves as pioneers helping define a new warfare domain, and they’re among a minority who know how to do the work. They also feel like they’re contributing to the Navy’s combat mission.

“I’ve always felt that one of the things I bring to table is to provide information to the people who use it, especially the guys up forward,” Thibeault said.

They often get to stay near their families, but the hours are long and the workload can quickly expand, keeping them at work later than they expected, and 12- to 15-hour days happen often. They don’t have typical six- to nine-month deployments, but they do get sent away to set up networks, Savala said.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s easier or harder from any other community in the Navy. They all have their challenges; they just present themselves in a different way,” he said.

Playing defense

While it’s difficult to discuss day-to-day details of the job without compromising security, Rogers provided some context to the Navy’s defensive work.

In a given 24-hour period, it’s common for cyber warriors to encounter 100 probes looking to infiltrate Navy networks, Rogers said.

Navy Cyber Defensive Operations Command, a task force that runs the service’s cyber defenses, seeks out and squashes these potential intruders — some no more dangerous than email spam, some much more threatening. Like burglars, they’re casing the Navy’s networks, figuring out the weak points and what sort of data they could steal.

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“You will see IP addresses beaconing out to others, and that is an immediate red flare for us,” Rogers said. “ ‘OK, what is the system doing talking to the outside world? This is not an address we would traditionally associate with normal network operations.’”

When it comes to such attacks, the Navy’s connectivity can be a disadvantage — any networked computer, from the ones that control power grids to mobile phones to an E-2C Hawkeye overseeing aircraft flying sorties from a carrier, could be vulnerable, officials, sailors and experts said.

To counter such efforts, cyber warriors can trace the origin of an attack, or load data with a “poison pill” that will destroy information as it’s stolen, said Trey Herr, a fellow at George Washington University’s Cybersecurity Policy Research Institute.

Uniformed personnel are responsible for creating security procedures and monitoring traffic in and out of military computer servers and around networks, looking for intruders, Herr said. Civilians handle repelling most direct attacks on Navy systems, Rogers said.

Things are different on the other side of the fence.

On the offensive

Civilians develop many of the Navy’s offensive cyber weapons, particularly the more complex ones, Rogers said. But it’s clear from Rogers, Navy documents and international warfare policies that sailors and other uniformed service members will be the ones handling these offensive operations.

Rules of warfare make it tough to put civilians at the controls of a cyber attack, just as it makes it impossible to put them in a cockpit during a close-air support sortie, or on a surface combatant while launching Tomahawk missiles, Rogers said. Again, the three-star was tight-lipped on the Navy’s offensive capabilities.

However, some recent high-profile, offensive cyber incidents may yield some clues about what cyber warriors do:

*U.S. and Israeli cyber forces reportedly introduced a virus called Stuxnet into Iranian computer systems involved with the nation’s nuclear program. The U.S. government won’t discuss its involvement with the virus; Iranian media has reported multiple virus attacks since 2010, the most recent report coming in December.

(Page 7 of 7)

*Responding to a friendly challenge from the Department of Homeland Security, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin showed how to take control of an unmanned aircraft via “spoofing” — hacking into its Global Positioning System software and directing it via fake GPS signals.

*A civilian hacker tapped into an AT&T database and made off with more than 100,000 email addresses of iPad users. He received a 41-month prison sentence.

Tenth Fleet officials wouldn’t compare their tactics with these incidents. Rogers said making his team’s duties clear to older sailors or outside interests can be a challenge. One of the reasons he refers to his sailors as “Jedi knights” is to help give such groups a better perspective. But he said the new generation of recruits understand, the cyber mission and don’t ask— Rogers said he rarely has trouble explaining the cyber mission to younger potential cyber warriors.

“Their view is ‘Wow, I have seen it. I lived it. Yeah, I know what I can do,’” Rogers said. “‘Just give me the training.’”

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