If the Defense Department expects to maintain a competitive edge in cyber warfare and other emerging technologies on the digital battlefield, then it has to be able to develop these tools quickly — something that can be difficult in a bureaucratic environment.

As it so often does, the U.S. government is looking to the private sector for inspiration, and it’s seeing commercial partners leveraging these tools already, officials from the U.S. military and the Pentagon said at the 2024 C4ISRNET Conference on Wednesday. That’s in no small part due to the fact that many of these companies have the workforce on hand to use them and can recruit competitively on pay.

“We have seen Big Tech and large tech companies embracing some of these tools, and they’re moving out with it because they see the value in these methods,” said Benjamin Bishop, deputy director of transition in the Adaptive Capabilities Office of DARPA. “But a lot of those companies ... can pay salaries for this talent that may not translate to other companies in the defense industrial base because their focus area is different.”

There’s also a need, he said, to make these capabilities accessible not just to certifying organizations and those with specialized training or expertise, but to the broader workforce to move U.S. military strategy forward holistically. And it needs to happen fast enough so that the latest technology is not mired in acquisition regulation and rendered obsolete.

“How do we navigate the the non-technical barriers to our transition?” said Bishop. “How do we get the tools into the hands of the warfighters in order to maximize their success?”

The proliferation of digital threats in recent years has forced cybersecurity to become the responsibility of every Pentagon office, civilian and military. Bishop noted that the cyber-contested environment is rapidly become a standard character of war, and the Biden Administration, too, has set top-down goals for every aspect of government to be equipped with security measures in place, whether they contribute directly to national defense or not.

“To me, that’s not necessarily a technology problem,” said Bishop. “How do we get the technology to be ... understood by the systems that have to certify these products, but also understood by the workforce that’s across our defense industrial base and also in uniform?”

And while partnering with the private sector can and does work, the military itself must develop its own cyber expertise, he said.

On top of trying to meet general manpower goals, the services, too, are recruiting cyber experts to their ranks and contend with how to compensate them uniformly despite different pay scales, [Military Occupation Specialty] titles, and promotion processes, according to Bishop.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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