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Can our cyber cadre compete with China?

May 9, 2014
Rep. Tammy Duckworth on China’s Cyber Warriors
Rep. Tammy Duckworth on China’s Cyber Warriors: China is ahead of the U.S. in training military cyber-specialists, warns. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a keynote speaker at the C4ISR & Networks Conference 2014.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth warns that China is ahead of the U.S. in developing trained cyber warriors. (Rob Curtis/Staff)


The U.S. faces numerous adversaries in cyberspace, but one in particular looms large above the others: China. The massive country has effectively nationalized cybersecurity, and that presents a serious problem for American cyber warriors, according to one lawmaker.

The operators and defenders of critical U.S. networks have different backgrounds, but most have one thing in common—cybersecurity is something they’ve learned during the course of their careers, not what they studied and specialized in from the start. That may be beginning to change, but in the meantime, China is pulling ahead with cyber-focused students and career paths.

“I do think we’re at a big disadvantage when you compare where we are to many of the other nations operating in this realm who are at the forefront of this…specifically the Chinese,” Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said May 6 at the C4ISR & Networks conference in Arlington, Va. “When you look at our cyber warriors, in the Army for example, these are not men and women who started out their careers as cyber warriors. They don’t go through ROTC or the academies and what they want to be when they graduate is a cyber warrior; it’s not even a career field that’s open to them at the time. They want to be rangers or aviators…or infantry. But cyber is not that. What we get in the cyber cadre in this country are people who’ve done other things for a while.”

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That puts the U.S. behind the curve as China pulls ahead in science, technology, engineering and math, areas in which America lags and which directly contribute to the cyber-force problem.

“We do the best we can to train then, provide them with certifications, provide them with experience – but they’re going up against Chinese military officers who were probably recruited out of high school and probably have a couple Ph.D. at this point, and who do nothing but cyber their entire careers. This is a daunting enemy we have to face up to.”

Looking to cyber professionals who currently serve in the military’s National Guard or Reserves is one option Duckworth supports, herself a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard. But she emphasized that the focus needs to go even younger, even into middle school.

Duckworth highlighted a congressional app-writing contest, the first of its kind, as one effort to reach into the school-age student population and draw interest in technology-related areas. That particular contest is for high school students, but “it needs to go even younger,” she said.

“What we’re facing right now is a wakeup call that cyber is absolutely a priority, and if we don’t learn how to dominate this military battle space and if we don’t learn to do it now, we will leave ourselves behind much as great empires and nations did in the past,” Duckworth said. “As long we don’t dominate this battle space we will behind our competitors. And we simply can’t afford that.”

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