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Lawmakers outline cyber priorities for Pentagon

Lawmakers aim to focus on retaining highly skilled personnel and using DOD’s data to boost the Pentagon’s artificial intelligence efforts

Rep. Mike Gallagher chairs both the Armed Services cyber subcommittee and the new select committee on competition with China.
Rep. Mike Gallagher chairs both the Armed Services cyber subcommittee and the new select committee on competition with China. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers say addressing recruitment and retention challenges tied to the Pentagon’s cyber forces is among their top priorities within the military software and information technology landscape this Congress. 

But they also want to see a host of other issues — including international cyber diplomacy and the Defense Department’s ability to leverage data to boost decision-making — make the agendas of the House and Senate Armed Services cyber panels in the months ahead. 

While the rosters for Senate Armed Services subcommittees haven’t yet been announced publicly, a handful of members, including the new chairman of the House Armed Services’ Cyber, Information Technology and Innovation panel, outlined their areas of focus in interviews and statements this week. 

Many of the issues on lawmakers’ radar are touched by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which has seen the deployment of dual-use technologies that have both commercial and military applications, as well as showcased the need for robust defensive and offensive capabilities to counter and deter cyberattacks. 

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who chairs the House cyber panel, also drew a link between the subcommittee’s jurisdiction and the need to counter China. 

“The cyber assault on Taiwan has already begun,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “If we are to prevent Taiwan from suffering the same fate as Ukraine, we must work to ensure U.S. Cyber Forces are efficiently organized and operationally capable of defending our interests in cyberspace.” 

Building a cyber workforce

Boosting the military cyber personnel pipeline and ensuring DOD-trained talent isn’t lost to the better-paid private sector are among the areas of focus for lawmakers in both the House and Senate. 

The topic was at the center of a Government Accountability Office audit that reviewed the military services’ guidance surrounding advanced cyber training, needed to fill a work role that U.S. Cyber Command has identified as critical. 

Specifically, GAO’s review, which was requested by a Senate report accompanying the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, found that while the Navy and Air Force require those who receive the advanced cyber training to fulfill a three-year active-duty service obligation, the Marine Corps lack such guidance and the Army doesn’t clearly define its obligations. 

It also showed that while the services spent at least $160 million a year on cyber retention bonuses from fiscal 2017 through fiscal 2021, DOD officials “continue to experience challenges retaining qualified cyber personnel.” 

Sen. Joe Manchin III, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Cybersecurity Subcommittee in the last Congress, sees those areas as “two levers” for members to pull, a Democratic aide said this week, referring both increasing personnel payment or incentives as well as instituting “some type of service obligation.” 

Beyond that, Manchin, D-W.Va., is looking to support initiatives and scholarships from the National Security Agency, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the White House’s Office of the National Cyber Director, the aide said, including efforts targeting both universities and trade schools. 

“You don’t need a bachelor’s degree or even an associate’s degree to get a certificate for cybersecurity or even systems administration, and those folks are just as important as the folks that are actually going in and doing a lot of the red teaming,” the aide said.   

A returning member of the House’s cyber defense panel, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., underscored the importance of shoring up the workforce in a recent interview, citing the “programs and projects that are just not reaching their full potential” because of retention difficulties. 

He wants to work with the military services to “ensure that they are cultivating talent” in the cyber realm by deepening and growing individuals’ skill sets, rather than thinking of software and IT training “as a skill to kind of augment on top of other things.”

Fellow House cyber panel member Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, floated the idea of creating a cyber institute or cyber warfighting school to help attract talent and level-up the existing workforce as a way to get at that issue. 

“You need to do it at the front end, if you will, at the elementary level, and then at the high-end, sophisticated level, at the backside  . . .  taking those folks and training them for recurring professional development is also very important,” he said in an interview. 

Artificial intelligence, cyber diplomacy and other priorities

Lawmakers say their cyber policy goals span well beyond personnel issues, ranging from the domestic development and management of military technologies all the way up to the international stage.  

On the Senate side, Manchin is planning to focus on how the Pentagon manages its data, the Democratic aide said — a key enabler for training artificial intelligence systems, which require mounds of digitally stored, cleaned and labeled datasets. 

The senator intends to focus this year on ensuring the Defense Department “has access to all the data that’s available to them, and all of that data is being managed effectively so that it can be put into an artificial intelligence,” the aide said. “That way, the AIs that we’re building will be able to make better, more informed decisions.” 

AI has already captured the interest of other members this session. For example, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., recently called for the formation of “a dedicated agency to regulate” all facets of AI, informed by the work of a nonpartisan commission that he hopes to create. It’s unclear to what extent Lieu, an Air Force veteran who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wants to focus on the DOD applications of AI. 

For his part, Kim hopes to get clarity on DOD’s broader strategy surrounding next-generation technology adoption and specifically what the department “is trying to drive toward,” including but not limited to AI. 

“We dive so much into details that I think sometimes we fail to have that big picture conversation,” he said. “When you’re dealing with strategic challenges and threats that we’re faced with in this century and with a new technology that frankly, is moving faster than any of us fully understanding and comprehend right now, whether it’s about the real capabilities of AI and what kind of threat that could provide or what kind of opportunities that can provide, we’re not always having that kind of conversation.” 

Kim also cited the need for expanded cyber standards between the U.S. and its allies to boost interoperability, akin to those NATO has related to artillery. He’s further interested in creating additional international cyber exchanges to share ideas and enhance collaboration in the technology realm. 

Domestically, Gallagher said the House cyber panel will “conduct oversight of the department’s numerous innovation efforts” while urging DOD forward on better leveraging “commercial technology to empower warfighters.” 

Gallagher has previously advocated for boosting funding for the Pentagon’s small-budget technology incubator, the Defense Innovation Unit, which last month reported that 17 projects went from prototype to production in fiscal 2022, with cyber and AI-related programs driving much of those capability transitions. 

More broadly, Fallon touted the importance of integrating cyber capabilities across the force structure. While he didn’t name specific solutions he wants to see more widely adopted, he did say there would be “more to come” on fifth-generation wireless technologies. Facilitating 5G deployment, and ensuring DOD moves faster in rolling out 5G infrastructure across its military bases, was a focus for Fallon last year.  

“They really need to be able to see cyber as a warfighting function,” he said of DOD’s components. 

Filling a void

In the House, the cyber defense panel was facing a leadership vacuum heading into this Congress following the retirement of Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who championed cybersecurity overhauls during his two decades as a lawmaker. 

Though Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., served as the panel’s top Republican during the 117th Congress, he left the subcommittee’s ranks this time around to be the chairman of the Military Personnel subcommittee and join the Strategic Forces subpanel. 

Now, Gallagher’s new role as chair of the cyber subcommittee could put him in a highly influential position to shape DOD software policies, programs, acquisition guidelines and more, while carrying forward Langevin’s legacy.  

Jeremiah Gertler, a longtime defense policy analyst who spent a dozen years as a Congressional Research Service military aviation specialist, noted Langevin was unique among members for devoting himself to leading on cyber policy. 

“So much of Congress is where you sit determines where you stand,” Gertler said, referencing the parochial interests that often act as chief influences on a lawmaker’s agenda. “If you get a member who has a particular knowledge because of background or because they made themselves smart, they can drive committee debate.” 

Gallagher, a co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission and member of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, is also bringing his background as a China hawk to the helm of the armed services cyber panel. Meanwhile, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., will serve as ranking member, House Armed Services Committee leaders announced late Wednesday. 

Tapped to lead the newly formed House committee centered on strategic competition with China, Gallagher’s dual perches on the two panels represent “a perfect coming together of two things that are vitally needed in our national security policy,” said Bill Greenwalt, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer who’s now a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

That’s because of the high relevance of and overlap within those domains, he said. Areas such as leveraging the electromagnetic spectrum, which DOD uses for wireless communications and electronic warfare and radar technologies, and performing offensive and defensive cybersecurity missions are “vital in our competition with China and the security of the whole [Indo-Pacific Command] region,” he continued.

But the membership overlap doesn’t end there. Kim, Khanna and fellow cyber subcommittee member Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., also serve on the China select committee.  

“Right now, we’re coming to grips with software acquisition, cyber, what’s the future of artificial intelligence, and how data analytics is going to drive information to the warfighter to execute on a real-time basis,” Greenwalt added. “It’s a fascinating, incredible amount of things converging and so if we get the right member who’s thinking strategically and also tactically, some really good things can happen.”

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