Already in high demand for their rare and elite skills, special operations soldiers need to add one more capability to their toolbox: cyber.
Leaders in the special operations and cyber communities discussed current and future needs for special operations and the cyber domain during the Project Gray Symposium held recently at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.
“There are people in this audience who know how to both engage the enemy in close quarters combat, build a foreign insurgency and hack computers,” said a senior White House adviser on cyber. “There are only a handful, and I need help building more.”
Speakers and attendees at the event were not speaking for attribution and agreed only to be referred to in this article by their general affiliations.
Another speaker, who granted permission to be identified, Col. Patrick Duggan, a Special Forces Commander at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, said military leaders too often are getting overly focused on the technical aspects and shunt cyber responsibilities onto intelligence or signals personnel.
“It is an everybody thing,” Duggan said. “In the next 10 years, every single Green Beret, SEAL and Ranger must understand computers, cryptography and coding. It is essential to their survival. It is not a thing problem, it is a cultural one.”
One of the people who is looking hard at how to build that capability within the Army’s special operations forces is Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, commander of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
Sonntag spoke briefly with media during the conference.
“Cyber influences the human domain,” Sonntag said. “For the unconventional warfare specialist, I want them to be able to use this environment as a tool, a means as a strategic option.”
He noted that America’s Russian counterparts are already using cyber for sabotage and subterfuge in hybrid operations against other nations.
“We are expected to be at the leading edge of what’s going on,” Sonntag said.
But he quickly stressed that cyber training and operations, at this point, are focused on defensive, not offensive, operations.
Without divulging details, Sonntag said he personally witnessed cyber in real world operations. He described situations in which, as soon as U.S. special operations forces arrived at a location, social media and other web traffic lit up with talk, disclosing locations, descriptions and other information about the operators, who intended to remain covert.
“I’ve seen this firsthand,” Sonntag said. “You can go in, and immediately there’s chatter out there. ‘Hey, the Americans are here, and they’ve got this kind of equipment.’”
“So, how do you mask that?” the two-star asked.
Sonntag said nothing would change as far as the fundamental qualifications for a special operations soldier. Candidates must still pass all the rigorous selection hurdles to join the community.
But enticing those from the nascent military cyber community or the civilian side to enter special operations and gain or bring those skills may require different approaches and efforts.
“How do I go out and recruit these guys?” Sonntag said. “I need them for their smarts, their ability to operate in this domain, but I need them to operate physically in the domains where special operators operate.”
All that means is a lot of training, with even more to add cyber. And current generations are not like Sonntag’s. They’re not necessarily joining the military for the long haul and looking toward retirement.
“They come in for a different purpose,” he said. “To contribute, offer something back. Not to be here for a lifetime. And for these kids, anything past two years is a lifetime.”
He might only get two enlistments out of a typical soldier, he said. That’s not enough.
“Are there financial, educational, job program incentives?” he said. “And once they’re in, how does the Army keep them?“
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.