Interview by Anil Tailor, SVP of Cyber and SIGINT Solutions, Leidos
In an informative interview, Dave Frederick, Executive Director of the United States Cyber Command (USCC), and Leidos’ Senior Vice President of Cyber and SIGINT Solutions, Anil Tailor engaged in an early June Billington Cybersecurity Fireside chat. Mr. Frederick talked about the Command’s mission, key priorities, and key resource needs as his organization moves to embrace more control over its own budget and management authorities in the coming year.
To set the scene, Mr. Tailor asked Mr. Frederick to highlight USCC’s primary mission and priorities. Mr. Frederick described the USCC’s three primary missions. First, the USCC is responsible for securing, operating, and defending DOD’s computer systems, one of the world’s largest networks having around 4 million endpoints as of 2022. Second, the USCC, working with other US Government partners to include DHS and the FBI, protects the homeland from significant cyberattacks. This mission includes deploying both active defensive and overseas offensive capabilities. Third, the USCC supports the other Joint Force Combatant Commands (such as EUCOM, STRATCOM, and AFRICOM) to assist both their defensive and offensive capabilities during times of conflict.
Mr. Frederick highlighted four current key USCC priorities. First, he stressed a key focus of the Command was to ensure force readiness to support their missions. This includes training and workforce development of the Command’s multiple mission teams. Second, he emphasized continued development of the Command’s integrated deterrence efforts which includes continued development of effective teamwork within the command and working with other Combatant Command elements such as Space Command. Third, he highlighted the continued work on talent recruiting and onboarding. Last, he emphasized continued development and implementation of the DOD’s Joint Cyber Warfighting Architecture (JCWA) which is designed to collect, fuse, and process data and intelligence to provide DOD elements situational awareness and battle management at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
Mr. Tailor next asked Mr. Frederick to highlight how USCC leverages its offense to strengthen its defensive mission. He nicely articulated how having both mission capabilities more fully complement and enable all the Command’s missions. He emphasized USCC’s intelligence collection authorities that could be consistently leveraged to better inform USCC defenders of adversary plans and intentions. He used as an example of this, the USCC Hunt Forward program which sends USCC teams to other nations, via their request, to work together to look for adversaries within their foreign networks. These discoveries could be used both to better inform USCC defenders back home while strengthening partner networks through collective mitigation efforts. He also highlighted that USCC not only works to get this intelligence into DOD defenders’ hands but also to the rest of the federal government and the private sector as well to better shore up US cyber defenses overall. To date, USCC has conducted over 27 Hunt Forward missions with 16 different country partners, working on over 50 different foreign networks to include work in the Ukraine, Estonia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia during the current conflict in the Ukraine.
Mr. Tailor followed up by asking how the USCC works with key partners such as NSA and other parts of DOD. Mr. Frederick highlighted that USCC has an exceptionally close daily working relationship with NSA leveraging their deep technical and cryptological expertise that better enables all USCC mission areas. He also described the close working relationships with the military branches. He cited that the highlight of his week was the Operational Commanders Forum which rotated weekly meetings with Service cyber elements focused on their new discoveries, innovation, and ways of improving their mission work. The meeting focused on garnering lessons learned so that the entire DOD cyber team could benefit from one another.
Mr. Tailor then asked what USCC was looking for from the private sector to assist in meeting the Command’s priorities, Mr. Frederick stressed two key requirements. First, he emphasized USCC’s continued need to enhance its technology capabilities as it related to performing its mission as well as to enhance the JCWA, Joint Cyber Warfighting architecture. He underscored the complexity of the multiple systems that made up the JCWA and its continued focus on integration and leveraging the combined generated data from it. In that regard, current USCC technical priorities were focused:
- Leveraging AI/ML to help exploit big data;
- Enhanced protection of DOD’s weapons systems;
- Better defensive tools such as enhanced digital sensors;
- Ensuring the availability of DOD’s command and control system; and
- Continued enhancement of the USCC’s 133 mission team training environment.
Second, Frederick emphasized USCC’s continued focus on information sharing and collective defense initiatives with the Defense Industrial Base (companies that support DOD) and the US important telecommunication base. With its NSA partner, USCC was committed to building a relationship with the private sector where mutual tipping and queuing of valuable data could be continually employed. Frederick emphasized that the Command sees cyber as a team sport and the only way where real cyber defense can be achieved.
Searching for the “Top Gun” Movie for Cyber
Mr. Tailor asked Frederick if he could share some lessons learned from his perch serving as USCC’s Executive Director. Frederick quickly highlighted how he only wished that the private sector could build the type of operational mindset he has seen at the command. He stressed that USCC operates cybersecurity as “a digital business operation.” He went on to explain that the Command goes beyond treating cybersecurity as a compliance requirement with focus on standards and regulations. He stressed that DOD was exceptional at running complex operations and on focused operational planning and that the USCC has brought that mission focus to the cyber business. This quality commitment-combined with the modality of having both defensive and offensive authorities and focus on planning pushed the USCC to faster operational execution, enhanced security operational center focus, and an ability to ingest cyber threat intelligence into all facets of the Command’s mission. “Discovery pushes immediate action,” he highlighted. He also emphasized that the DOD’s operational planning process also provided keen insights into anticipating adversaries’ next moves which enhanced the Command’s own playbooks for incident response.
Mr. Tailor next asked about how the USCC was addressing its key cyber talent requirements. Mr. Frederick highlighted that he wished the USCC had a movie such as “Top Gun” for cyber to get young people excited about being cyber warriors. He pointed out that USCC was moving more quickly to proactively get the word out about their cyber opportunities for both military and civilian careers within USCC. The USCC recently set up an Academic Engagement Network, an effort that now has over 100 academic institutions participating. He emphasized that this kind of proactive engagement makes it a lot easier to get young people excited about the USCC mission, particularly given that most people do not know about civilian-oriented jobs within the Command. Frederick also highlighted that the Command had also recently leveraged this network to begin “Tech Talks” and “Capture the Flag” like engagement opportunities where both sides could learn from each other. Lastly, he talked about the Command’s new Capstone Mentorship Project, an effort to leverage interested college students on key USCC technical challenges and where they could be pitted with exceptional technical mentors to help them learn and grow.
Lastly, Tailor asked Frederick how new budget authorization given to the Command in 2024 will likely change how the Command works. Frederick emphasized that this new capability would provide the Command with more “service-like authorities” and control over the Command’s planning and investment cycle. He cited the example of how this new budget management capability would allow the Command to invest in workforce training in coordination with continual changes made to the JCWA. Overall, it would allow the Command to better control where it put its investment dollars and provide greater flexibility in addressing how to meet changing adversary tactics over time.
Overall, Frederick articulately highlighted some key things going on within the Command, brought to light current requirements that would be of great interest to respective partners, and nicely articulated where USCC was going as it moves to embrace its own growth into a fully functional Combatant Command element within DOD.