Where would Mattis take cyber?

Editorial Credit: a katz / 

President-elect Trump met with retired Marine general James Mattis Nov. 19 in advance of making his pick for defense secretary. (Photo credit: a katz /

President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of defense has a long and colorful track record of comments on combat, Afghanistan, Iran and other threats to the U.S. When it comes to cyber, however, experts say he's a bit of a tabula rasa.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis has made a variety of broad comments about cyber and electronic warfare over the years, but it hasn't been a primary area of focus in his time overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While serving as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command, he spoke with CHIPS magazine in 2009 and warned that enemies were developing cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.

"We have seen the enemy penetrating our networks, whether it be banking or stealing identities, and we have had Defense Department networks under attack," he said. "We know they can get inside, and we should anticipate that they will take these down."

Mattis warned about the fallibility of U.S. military communications networks and the need for troops to learn how to operate in a challenged and degraded electronic environment – comments routinely made by military commanders today.

"Because we know we are going to run into a challenge does not mean we are going to surrender the technological fight," he said. "We still fight it, but we are very cautious about relying on something we know that the enemy will eventually, just like we will, exploit."

In that interview, Mattis also made a comment about the need for partnership that is heard at just about every cyber summit these days: "The military can't solve [technological problems] on their own," he said. "Industry can't, neither can universities and academia. Americans can't do it alone."

As commander of U.S. Central Command, Mattis discussed cyber in his 2011 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. His past statements are for the most part boilerplate language current military officials typically use when testifying before Congress.

"Our enemies operate within cyberspace…to plan, coordinate, recruit, train, equip, execute and garner support for operations against the U.S., its allies and interests," he said. "As we adapt to a thinking adversary, we recognize the need to accelerate our acquisition processes to enable us to out-maneuver our enemies. We also ask that Congress provide the flexibility to rapidly and proactively counter new, emerging, and future threats that are either present on the battle field or potential threats that represent vulnerability and would be difficult to counter."

Although it's controversial for Trump to select a former general to head the Pentagon -- especially one who will require a congressional waiver since he has been retired fewer than seven years -- current and former officials have generally praised the "warrior monk" as he's often described as being a "Marine's Marine."

Analysts and former officials who spoke with FCW about Mattis all praised his intellect and passion for defending the U.S., but could not point to any specific cyber initiatives or programs he would be likely to champion. It's an open question whether he will support some of the cyber and innovation programs launched by Secretary Ash Carter such as DIUx, the Strategic Capabilities Office or the Defense Innovation Board.

"Innovation will be keenly supported, but both concepts and solutions will have to be firmly grounded in history, and require rigorous experimentation," said Frank Hoffman, senior research fellow at the National Defense University. "Power point slides and demos that are not competing against a thinking opponent trying to defeat our new ideas will not count for much if I know Jim Mattis." 

Retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program, told FCW that while Mattis might be a bit of a blank slate on cyber, he could have an ace in the hole with Mark Wynne, who is widely believed to be a candidate for deputy secretary of defense.

Wynne served as secretary of the Air Force from 2005-2008. He added exploiting, defending and fighting in cyberspace to the Air Force mission statement in 2005. He also drove the effort to stand up Air Force Cyber Command.

That did not happen, in part because Secretary of Defense Robert Gates forced Wynne out as Air Force secretary in 2008 amid problems with the management of U.S. nuclear assets and capabilities.

But Wynne has continued to focus on cyber and recently wrote an op-ed for Breaking Defense arguing for a more "analog" approach to cyber.

"I would suggest that we prioritize the goal that federal Web sites immediately be protected using frozen (e.g.; non-reprogrammable) complex analog circuitry mimicking and replacing currently installed Internet appliances," wrote Wynne.

"Further, infrastructure owners be tasked to put in place protected [supervisory control and data acquisition systems], under the watchful eye of the Department of Homeland Security. These would be frozen analog complex circuitry, again mimicking and replacing the currently installed Internet appliance."

Whether or not such proposals would gain traction, Cancian said that Wynne would be an asset and a complement to Mattis on cyber.

About the Author

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


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