Martijn Lammerts
My own digital place with a little of everything

Gen. Nakasone on US Cyber Command

Really interesting article by and interview with Paul M. Nakasone (Commander of US Cyber Command, Director of the National Security Agency, and Chief of the Central Security Service) in the current issue of Joint Forces Quarterly. He talks about the evolving role of US Cyber Command, and its new posture of "persistent engagement" using a "cyber-persistant force."

From the article:

We must "defend forward" in cyberspace, as we do in the physical domains. Our naval forces do not defend by staying in port, and our airpower does not remain at airfields. They patrol the seas and skies to ensure they are positioned to defend our country before our borders are crossed. The same logic applies in cyberspace. Persistent engagement of our adversaries in cyberspace cannot be successful if our actions are limited to DOD networks. To defend critical military and national interests, our forces must operate against our enemies on their virtual territory as well. Shifting from a response outlook to a persistence force that defends forward moves our cyber capabilities out of their virtual garrisons, adopting a posture that matches the cyberspace operational environment.

From the interview:

As we think about cyberspace, we should agree on a few foundational concepts. First, our nation is in constant contact with its adversaries; we're not waiting for adversaries to come to us. Our adversaries understand this, and they are always working to improve that contact. Second, our security is challenged in cyberspace. We have to actively defend; we have to conduct reconnaissance; we have to understand where our adversary is and his capabilities; and we have to understand their intent. Third, superiority in cyberspace is temporary; we may achieve it for a period of time, but it's ephemeral. That's why we must operate continuously to seize and maintain the initiative in the face of persistent threats. Why do the threats persist in cyberspace? They persist because the barriers to entry are low and the capabilities are rapidly available and can be easily repurposed. Fourth, in this domain, the advantage favors those who have initiative. If we want to have an advantage in cyberspace, we have to actively work to either improve our defenses, create new accesses, or upgrade our capabilities. This is a domain that requires constant action because we're going to get reactions from our adversary.


Persistent engagement is the concept that states we are in constant contact with our adversaries in cyberspace, and success is determined by how we enable and act. In persistent engagement, we enable other interagency partners. Whether it's the FBI or DHS, we enable them with information or intelligence to share with elements of the CIKR [critical infrastructure and key resources] or with select private-sector companies. The recent midterm elections is an example of how we enabled our partners. As part of the Russia Small Group, USCYBERCOM and the National Security Agency [NSA] enabled the FBI and DHS to prevent interference and influence operations aimed at our political processes. Enabling our partners is two-thirds of persistent engagement. The other third rests with our ability to act -- that is, how we act against our adversaries in cyberspace. Acting includes defending forward. How do we warn, how do we influence our adversaries, how do we position ourselves in case we have to achieve outcomes in the future? Acting is the concept of operating outside our borders, being outside our networks, to ensure that we understand what our adversaries are doing. If we find ourselves defending inside our own networks, we have lost the initiative and the advantage.


The concept of persistent engagement has to be teamed with "persistent presence" and "persistent innovation." Persistent presence is what the Intelligence Community is able to provide us to better understand and track our adversaries in cyberspace. The other piece is persistent innovation. In the last couple of years, we have learned that capabilities rapidly change; accesses are tenuous; and tools, techniques, and tradecraft must evolve to keep pace with our adversaries. We rely on operational structures that are enabled with the rapid development of capabilities. Let me offer an example regarding the need for rapid change in technologies. Compare the air and cyberspace domains. Weapons like JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions] are an important armament for air operations. How long are those JDAMs good for? Perhaps 5, 10, or 15 years, some-times longer given the adversary. When we buy a capability or tool for cyberspace...we rarely get a prolonged use we can measure in years. Our capabilities rarely last 6 months, let alone 6 years. This is a big difference in two important domains of future conflict. Thus, we will need formations that have ready access to developers.

Solely from a military perspective, these are obviously the right things to be doing. From a societal perspective -- from the perspective a potential arms race -- I'm much less sure. I'm also worried about the singular focus on nation-state actors in an environment where capabilities diffuse so quickly. But Cyber Command's job is not cybersecurity and resilience.

The whole thing is worth reading, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.

EDITED TO ADD (2/26): As an example US CyberCommand disrupted a Russian troll farm during the 2018 midterm elections.