General: Cyber capabilities exceed authorities

Gen. Robert B. Abrams

Gen. Robert Abrams said the Army is ahead of the other military services in meeting the requirement to create cyber mission forces and cyber protection teams.

The commanding general of the U.S. Army Forces Command said the Army is on the way to meeting its "initial design function" for tactical cyber capabilities, but the authority to use some of them is lacking.


Speaking at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual meeting in Washington, Gen. Robert Abrams said the Army is ahead of the other military services in meeting the requirement to create cyber mission forces and cyber protection teams.


"I'm happy to report the Army is leading [Defense Department] in that perspective," Abrams said. "We made the investment with the right people a few years ago. We're the only service that's created its own cyber branch and its own cyber military occupational specialty for enlisted [personnel]."


He added that the Army is pulling the top performers from other combat specialties as it works to stand up cyber forces. But the goal is to eventually train specialists in cyber warfare from the time of enlistment.


"I'm really proud of our Army in terms of boldly going where no one else has in terms of exploring the tactical application of cyber and specifically in the information domain," Abrams said.


He said the Army has completed five pilot cyber training exercises in the past year.


"We have integrated small capabilities, select capabilities, both defensive and offensive at the tactical level to explore what's in the art of the possible," he said. "What we've learned is there's a tremendous amount of tactical application [that cannot be used] because the authorities [haven't] quite caught up to the capabilities and the art of the possible."


By way of example, Abrams said that in the 1990s in the Balkans, psychological operations teams would drive around in Humvees with loudspeakers broadcasting messaging campaigns to the population.


"Today, why we can't we just have someone send an SMS to every cell phone that is served by four cell phone towers in a geographical area to target the same civilian population and put it right on their handheld?" he asked. "That's actually possible in today's world, but we don't have the same authorities" that the military had in the past.


And he said it's critical to get capabilities and practical applications clearly in line.


"There is a real cyberthreat in the world today that affects not only national infrastructure but has tactical applications," he said. "There is a real electronic warfare threat that impacts from strategic to tactical level. You've got the power of the information environment today that was never present in the '80s and '90s."


In that regard, Abrams said the U.S. is learning a great deal from adversaries that are exploiting social media and the nexus of cyber and the information domain to conduct "nonstandard operations."


"We've got to play a little catch-up there in the practical application," Abrams said.


Daniel Feehan, DOD's principal deputy assistant secretary for readiness, said that in addition to the question of authorities, the Army needs to address the challenge of persistent cyber training and career development.


"[Cyber expertise] is certainly a niche capability built up in an individual, so it is a very important question to ask: Is it important to have them move up the ranks like you would in other [military occupational specialties] in other areas, or do I want to continue to take that skill, develop it and maximize it and use it as long as possible?"


"So that's the area that the services are very much evolving into now -- the management of personnel across time, not just filling [job slots]," Feehan said.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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