NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland –
In today’s ever-changing digital landscape, cyberspace is all-encompassing, presenting new and emerging threats surpassing national borders in scale and complexity. Consequently, global partnerships will be vital in securing the pivotal battlefield of tomorrow, cyber officials said during a panel discussion at the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program 30th Anniversary Conference July 18.
But those same challenges should also be viewed as opportunities, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Neely, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard and one of the panelists.
“I think for the SPP, each country is on a journey [in cyberwarfare], and it’s at different levels on that path,” he said, adding that it presents an opportunity for Guard elements to deepen trust among current and future SPP partners.
Neely, a master cyberspace officer, pointed to the Illinois Guard’s partnership with Poland, one of the original 13 SPP partnerships established in 1993, as an example of a beneficial collaboration that grew to include cyber operations.
“Over the last 30 years, we talked about what we did in the early years of the pairing and co-deploying with the Polish military in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Neely said. “But it was not too long ago the Polish military really started on this [cyber] journey.”
Eventually, Polish defense officials visited U.S. cyber units, including those in the Illinois Guard, observing how they approached the contested domain.
“I’m always impressed with all our state partners and how they look at what we have in the United States, and then take the best of it and use it as a starting point [to] really move their programs forward,” Neely said.
The cyber partnership paid off, the major general added. Poland’s young yet formidable cyber program was recently ranked sixth in a global cyber defense index that gauges the degree to which the world’s major economies have adopted technology best practices to “advance resilience against cyberattacks.”
Neely also stressed the importance of building capabilities through exercises like Cyber Shield, the largest unclassified cyber exercise in the world.
“Even if you feel you don’t have that much capability, it doesn’t matter – bring your best and brightest, and we’ll work through it,” Neely said, adding that cyber exercises, in general, have an abundance of training associated with them. “If you want to build capacity or build a new line of effort, the cyber-defense area is a great way to do it.”
And many Guard members also work in civilian cyber operations, bringing a different perspective and skill set to the cyber realm.
“Many countries around the world – like the United States – have critical infrastructure owned by the private sector,” said Neely, “and how do you build an understanding in those countries that may only be focused on the military application of cyber?”
The answer, Neely suggested, lies in that dual military and civilian experience many Guard cyber teams bring with them.
“We have an opportunity to expand on that – given our civilian capabilities that we bring in, especially from a homeland security perspective,” he said.
The panel also discussed the new and dynamic challenges presented by autonomous disinformation and cyber-attacks. The latter of which Neely faced as the Illinois Guard’s top officer after Russia breached the Illinois election system in 2016.
“When we talk about cyber, we’re not just talking about blinky lights,” he said. “There are information operations campaigns, and across the network, this environment that we’re all living in is going to be pervasive going forward.”
The incident, he said, was a pivotal moment not only for Illinois, but the nation too.
“So, we really need to be thinking about [those issues] when we talk about our national security,” said Neely, pointing to how political meddling – of any kind – can be divisive to a nation.
The panel also included U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, director of plans and policy with U.S. Cyber Command, JeeYoung Oh, director of Threat Management and Operational Coordination for the Department of State, and Royal Canadian Navy Commodore Matthew Bowen, a vice director for plans and policy with U.S. Cyber Command.
The nature of the SPP, Bowen told attendees, enables Guard elements and its partners to build mutual cyber resiliency through information sharing.
“Anything we can do to make an adversary’s return on investment more expensive is a benefit,” Bowen said. “When we share information, we are generating resiliency, addressing vulnerabilities, fixing some of these problems, and doing it collectively.”
In his closing statement, Neely told attendees – comprised of mostly senior military leaders – to be open to fresh ideas when facing cyber challenges.
“None of us were born with an iPhone in our hands, right?” he said. “So as senior leaders, sometimes we don't get real comfortable with pushing the edge of technology and change.”
But the rapid pace of a hyper-connected world, Neely concluded, requires a new mindset.
“I challenge each of you to think about cyber differently because the threats are changing so quickly,” he said. “We need to continually be looking at that going forward.”