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Providing cyber situational awareness to troops is a key goal for U.S. Cyber Command under its new leader, Adm.. Michael Rogers. (SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)

Leaders at U.S. Cyber Command and the military cyber components face a number of competing priorities, but one of the top goals is to provide cyber situational awareness to troops and decision-makers alike, according to one top official.

Much like the visualized intelligence that helps guide traditional kinetic military operations, creating a common operational picture in cyberspace is critical – but it also needs to be adaptable to specific mission needs, said Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command.

“I’ve been at sea as a surface guy, a strike group guy, a numbered fleet guy – every level of maritime operations I’ve ever engaged in, I’m used to walking into a command center that gives me a common picture that provides color, symbology, geography, visual display,” Rogers said May 28 at the AFCEA Cyber Summit in Washington. “It enables me as a decision-maker to walk into a space, look at a visual and start to gain situational awareness in a very quick way that enables me to start thinking about fast, efficient decision-making. We do not have that right now in the cyber world. How do you defend something that you can’t see?”

Rogers admitted it’s been tougher than anticipated to create a cyber equivalent of the many tools used by troops on the ground to understand the environment around them. At least one reason may be the dispersed nature of cyber threats and operations – rather than being largely centered in a given theater, activities in cyberspace take place all over the world without respect to any conventional boundaries.

“We’re in the early stages of our journey of trying to do this. It has proven a lot harder than a lot of us thought it was going to be. We’re certainly not as far along as I’d like but it’s not because of lack of effort,” Rogers said. “We have a lot of activities going on across [the Defense Department] to coordinate these and bring these together. Because frankly in an era of declining resources we cannot afford to say, ‘I’ve got the perfect tool.’ We’ve got to divvy it up.”

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Another challenge is providing situational awareness that can be shared, but is relevant to the various missions and operators throughout cyberspace. Not everyone has the same requirements or daily tasks, meaning what’s relevant to one team may not mean much to another.

“How do we create this common, shared awareness? I say common because…what I need to know at U.S. Cyber Command in a network environment is probably different than what the [European Command] commander needs to know or what the [I Marine Expeditionary Force] community needs to know,” Rogers said. “This is not going to be a one-size-fits-all. We have got to tailor this base to the mission sets and the requirements of the commander that situational awareness is supporting.”

In an era of warfare that is unlikely to exclude cyber in any future conflict, it’s especially important to figure out the situational awareness picture, he added.

“If we can’t integrate this capability into the broader range of military operations…we’re never going to truly operationalize cyber,” Rogers warned. “And we’ll marginalize the capability.”

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