The Pentagon is planning to expand its cybersecurity force nearly fivefold over the next several years in a bid to bolster its defensive and offensive computer capabilities.
The plan is to add about 4,000 more military and civilian employees to the existing 900 staffers in the Defense Department's Cyber Command, the Washington Post reported today, citing several unnamed sources.
The planned expansion is in response to growing threats against critical U.S. assets in cyberspace, a defense official told Computerworld on Monday.
"As Secretary Panetta stated in his cyber speech last October, we are faced with an increasing threat of a cyber attack that could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11," the official said. "The department recognizes this growing danger and is working with a sense of urgency to put the right policies and structures in place to enable us to carry out our role."
The official said the Department of Defense will work closely with U.S. Cyber Command and the Combatant Commands to develop an "optimum force structure" for dealing with emerging cyberthreats.
The goal is to create three separate types of cyberforces each tasked with specific roles and responsibilities. The cyberforce structure will include Cyber National Mission Forces, Cyber Combat Mission Forces and Cyber Protection Forces, the official noted.
The national mission and cyber protection forces will focus on addressing threats to critical infrastructure targets and DoD networks, respectively. Meanwhile, the combat mission force will be responsible for planning and executing offensive operations and attacks in cyberspace.
"While the basic cyberforce structure model is clear, the implementation plan to achieve it is still being developed and is predecisional at this time," the official said.
The planned expansion comes amid heightening concerns about U.S. vulnerabilities in cyberspace. Many believe that the U.S. is already in the midst of an undeclared and mostly unseen cyberwar directed against it by unfriendly nation states and well-funded and highly organized criminal gangs and hactivist groups.
Countries like China and Russia are well ahead of the U.S. in terms of having cyberforces of the kind that the Pentagon is trying to build up, said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute. The challenge for the DoD will be to find enough qualified cybersecurity professionals to meet its ambitious expansion plans, he said.
"The key to putting the 4,000 in perspective is that every other critical part of the economy also needs the same people -- banks, power companies, telecom, defense contractors, civilian and state government and hospitals," said Paller.
But while the hunger for cybersecurity professionals with advanced skills is very real, the supply line is near empty, he added. If the DoD wants to meet its expansion goals, it will have to find innovative ways to find talent, Paller said.
He pointed to a program recently launched by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as an example of the kind of approach the DoD needs to take to find talent. Under the new Cyber Corps Challenge program, the New Jersey state government invited veterans of the U.S armed services and others to compete for spots in a community-college-based cybersecurity training program and six-month residencies at banks, the FBI and other organizations.
"China has been running competitions and training programs that work well in every... district since at least 2003," Paller said. "Russia set up its first advanced school in 1994. We are way behind in quantity and quality."
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.