Defense Department’s Secret Weapon for Network Security


Lessons civilians—or other organizations—can learn from how the military approaches cybersecurity.

I have something potentially wildly unpopular to suggest: If you work for or run an organization that deals with human beings and the data that goes with them, and if you are concerned about the security of that data, look to the Defense Department for a solution.  

The federal government, which has suffered some high-profile breaches recently, is notably tight-lipped about its cybersecurity strategies, but Defense has been instructive on the topic. The department operates in an environment in which cyberattacks are a persistent threat and as a result, its approach is very different from civilian agencies and many private-sector businesses—and far more successful.

Digital security in many organizations is not adequately implemented. Even if high-standard security measures—effective network hygiene; up-to-date, timely patched software; adequate software security; employees well trained in safe computing practices—were rigorously deployed, networks would still be attacked for the simple reason that all networks connected to the internet are attacked. Moreover, a significant fraction of those attacks will result in penetration, with some of those breaches involving the exfiltration of data.

Something more than security is needed to defend any network; networks need measures that create and promote resilience. The word “resilience” is not commonly used in civilian organizations’ networks, but frequently used when discussing military networks. Defense gets it. But what explains the disconnect?

Military agencies practice security but overwhelmingly rely on resilience. As the Defense Department Science Board reported in its 2013 Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat, “There is no single silver bullet to solve the threat posed by cyber-attack or [cyber] warfare … The cyber risk elements cannot be reduced to zero. While the problem cannot be eliminated, resilience capabilities can and must be determinedly managed …” To depend on security is to assume that you have a silver bullet when all you really have is a 50-foot wall waiting to be scaled by someone who has a 51-foot ladder.

To the extent that civilian government agencies and the private sector cling to security and neglect resilience in their cyber defense strategy, they affirm that they will continue to lag behind the military when it comes to cybersecurity. The military community was highly receptive to learning the hard lesson that security, though necessary, is bound to fail and therefore insufficient. Many military employees get shot at for a living. They accept that you cannot go to war without suffering casualties to equipment, installations and people. Because no military force engaged in combat can be secure, it must be resilient. The battlefield is a high-risk environment. The military community was therefore quick to see a parallel with the online environment.

Based on resilience, military cybersecurity is cybersecurity the private sector and civilian agencies can study and learn from. Resilience can be a hard sell. The challenge is to find ways to measure the effectiveness of each dollar spent on resilience, to “realign priorities” as necessary and to accept “tradeoffs in the capabilities that can be delivered.” This, most of all, is what we in the private sector can learn from the military approach to cybersecurity: The model of resilience, not the ideal of perfect security, is the only realistic way to engage with today’s digital environment.

Ray Rothrock is the chairman and chief executive officer of RedSeal.