U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency are key organizations needed in a world challenged by great power competition, the organizations’ senior enlisted leader said recently.
Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Scott Stalker is the advisor to Army Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the commander of Cybercom – DOD’s newest combatant command – and director of NSA. He has been in the job for a year. The command is based at Fort Meade, Maryland, but Stalker has worldwide responsibilities.
Cybercom and NSA are on the front line of great power competition. Russia and China will not challenge the United States openly on air, land or sea, but they can – and do – in cyberspace. Adjusting the priorities of the organizations to concentrate on this aspect of the National Defense Strategy has not been hard, but it does change the emphasis,” Stalker said.
China is the greater long-term adversary, but Russia “has the will, but maybe not the means” to challenge the U.S. military in cyberspace, he added.
Stalker said Cybercom is evolving and is no longer just reacting to developments, but operating through persistent engagement.
“This has been the highlight of my career,” he said. “If you look at history, cyberspace is the first new domain of warfare since the invention of the aircraft. We are really at the beginning right now. I can’t wait to see what Cyber Command and NSA will be in 10 years.”
Cybercom’s cybersecurity teams are getting filled out, he said, but there is still the task of building the infrastructure to support the combatant command. “We have the teams, but we need administrators, too,” he said. “We need logisticians, security and so on.”
The cyber teams are working through the certification process as well, Stalker said. Certification is a complicated process in any military occupational specialty, he said. When recruits finish boot camp, they are Marines. Those Marines then go to military occupational specialty-producing schools. Their training continues after they arrive at their first duty assignment. In the cyber world, certification is like on-the-job training, Stalker said.
“While you can do cyber training and cyber ranges and exercises, it is different when you are going up against an adversary that is very intelligent, that is not doing things that allow you to easily find them,” he said. The certification piece becomes critical because it shows the service member can defend the network, Stalker explained.
“While the services provide us, basically, a trained cyber operator or signals intelligence operator or crypto analyst, … we continue that training curriculum until they are ready to do it on their own,’ he said.
Industry welcomes service members with the skills and experience possessed by Cybercom or NSA troops, Stalker said.
“Those that get out can do very well for themselves because they possess the skills and a [top secret] clearance,” he said. “That poses a challenge, because we cannot compete on salary. There are people who left the services as [an] E-4, E-5, making six-figure salaries to start. I have to compete on service, on culture, on camaraderie or teamwork. We are not going to have E-4s making a quarter million [dollars]. That’s just not going to happen.”
One formative operation conducted by Cybercom was combating interference in the 2018 midterm elections — primarily from Russia, he said. The command supported the work of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Guard during the run-up to the elections.
The effort was very successful. “One thing you didn’t hear about was a lot of noise like you did in 2016,” he said. “In 2018, we used a whole-of-society approach. Both NSA and Cyber Command supporting Homeland Security see information and bring it to DHS and the FBI. They took the information to social media companies to get the accounts taken down. It’s a story that I wish more Americans knew about.”
The command is already working on defending the 2020 presidential election, Stalker said.
As senior enlisted leader, Stalker concentrates on troops, training and readiness. “That’s where I am laser-focused,” he said.
The saddest part of the last year was that “I was not mentally prepared for the amount of folks we would lose to people taking their own lives,” he said.
Stalker said the mental health challenge is far greater than he thought it would be. “What we’ve done at Cyber Command and NSA is we recognized it quickly,” he said.
He worked with Nakasone to learn the commander’s intent and then moved out with the staff. The command consulted with U.S. Special Operations Command to understand what they were doing and reached out to the civilian intelligence agencies to learn from them.
They established a resiliency program at both Cybercom and NSA, “so an individual can go to a doctor or chaplain and say ‘I don’t know what the problem is, but I don’t feel right,’” he said. Leaders will refer the individual to the appropriate resources for help.
Stalker said when he speaks to newcomers, noncommissioned officers and others, five minutes of the conversation will be about mental health and the fact that “I need deckplate leadership — those at the team level — to recognize these challenges,” he said. “General Nakasone and I don’t see everyone in this global enterprise every day. We are not going to know what is bothering them. But the teams do see their people, and they are the ones who need to be prepared to help.”
Stalker said he has seen teams “beat themselves up,” wondering what more they could have done. “I went to see some [mental health] professionals to get help understanding the process,” he said. “I wanted to be a leader that understands the mental health aspect of this. We have great programs. We need … NCO, civilian and officer leaders to intervene proactively when they see something.”
He said there is a pervasive, and mistaken, belief that those who ask for help will lose their security clearances and access for doing so. “You don’t lose your clearance because you are wounded,” Stalker said. “If I go to see a mental health professional and tell him that the stress is killing me and I am thinking about taking my life, what we will do is take you out of the work world briefly without losing your clearance. You have a wound. It’s not visible, but you have a wound, and we’ve got to fix that.”