CYBERCOM Seeks Troops Who Can Unleash Artificial Intelligence

National Security Agency director and head of U.S. Cyber Command Gen. Paul Nakasone testifies on Capitol Hill.

National Security Agency director and head of U.S. Cyber Command Gen. Paul Nakasone testifies on Capitol Hill. Jose Luis Magana/AP

AI won’t solve the military’s shortage of cyber professionals but can act as a force multiplier to ease the strain.

The Defense Department’s cyber warriors shouldn’t be too concerned about artificial intelligence taking their jobs, according to their commander, Gen. Paul Nakasone, who concurrently heads the National Security Agency. Instead, U.S. Cyber Command is looking for troops able to wield AI like a weapon.

During a budget hearing Wednesday held by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Rep. Anthony Brown, R-Md., asked the Pentagon’s cyber leadership whether AI could help reduce the demand for cyber talent.

“AI and machine learning certainly has a place as we look at some of the activities that we are doing day in and day out,” Nakasone told the subcommittee. “But I would offer, the people that make AI go, the people who make sure that our algorithms are right for machine learning, they’re the folks that I’m most focused on.”

Nakasone referred to what he called the “10x or 20x folks” that can utilize these advanced systems as a multiplier for the work being done by the command’s 133 Cyber Mission Force teams, which includes “amplify[ing] military lethality and effectiveness,” according to the Pentagon’s Defend Forward strategy released in September.

In that sense, AI won’t be replacing cyber troops one to one. But that force multiplier can ease the burden when there are gaps in the ranks.

The Cyber Excepted Service, or CES, system—established by Congress in 2016 to speed recruitment and retention by offering added incentives such as higher pay scales—has been another useful tool, particularly in speeding the hiring process, Nakasone said.

Since the first phase began in August 2017, CYBERCOM has seen a 60 percent drop in the hiring timeline, from 111 days to 44, Nakasone said, citing internal metrics.

The general said the military services have been an important asset in helping CYBERCOM recruit those people. But retaining quality cyber warriors who can make far more money in the private sector is the challenge “that’s most impactful for us,” he said.