MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. – What differentiates his command from Army, Navy and Air Force cyber operations is a focus on the forward-deployed nature of America’s expeditionary force in readiness, the commander of Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command said during a recent interview here. As commander of MARFORCYBER, Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills heads one of four service components of U.S. Cyber Command. The Marine command stood up in January 2010. Today, 300 Marines, federal civilians and contractors are performing cyber operations, Mills said. That number, he added, will grow to just under 1,000, at least until fiscal year 2016.
Each of the services’ cyber commands protects its own networks, Mills noted. “Where we differ is that we look more at tactical-level cyber operations and how we will be able to provide our forward-deployed ... Marine Air-Ground Task Force commanders with the capability to reach back into the cyber world [at home] to have their deployed units supported,” the general said. The basic structure for deployed Marine units, he said, is an air-ground task force that integrates ground, aviation and logistics combat elements under a common command element. “We’re more focused at the tactical level, the tactical edge of cyber operations, in supporting our forward-deployed commanders, and that’s what we should do,” Mills said. It’s an important capability, the general said, and one that will become more important and effective for deployed commanders in the years ahead.
“Cyber to me is kind of like artillery or air support,” Mills explained. “The actual weapon systems are well to your rear, back here in the continental United States, and what you need to be able to do is request that support be given to you and have it take effect wherever you’re operating.” The Marine Corps cyber mission is to advise the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, on the capabilities of the Marines within the cyber world and how to best use those forces in accomplishing the Cybercom mission, Mills said.“That’s our first job,” he added. “Our second job is to be able to conduct cyber operations across all three lines of cyber operations -– defensive and offensive cyber ops –- so we have to man, train and equip Marine forces to accomplish those missions.” In testimony to Congress in March, Alexander described the three Cybercom lines, or missions. -- A Cyber National Mission Force and its teams will help to defend the country against national-level threats. -- A Cyber Combat Mission Force and its teams will be assigned to the operational control of individual combatant commanders to support their objectives. -- A Cyber Protection Force and its teams will help to operate and defend the Defense Department’s information environment. Of the nearly 1,000 MARFORCYBER forces that will come online between now and fiscal 2016, Mills estimated that a third will be in uniform, a third will be federal civilian employees, and a third will be contractors. MARFORCYBER has Marines in the joint community who work throughout Cybercom at Fort Meade in Maryland. The Marine Corps cyber organization also is developing teams to be tasked by Cybercom to conduct operations across the spectrum of cyber operations. “It’s very similar to what we do today,” Mills said. “The units train and go forward from the United States and work for other commanders well forward, and cyber will be the same way. We’ll ship forces to Cybercom when requested, fully trained, fully manned, fully equipped, ready to operate.”
MARFORCYBER is a full-up component command under Cybercom along with the Air Force, Navy and Army, the general said. “All four of the component commanders talk regularly to each other and meet regularly at Cybercom to coordinate our growth, coordinate our requirements, [provide] input to Cybercom and take its guidance and direction, and operate together in big exercises like Cyber Flag,” he said. Cyber Flag is an annual exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., which Cybercom conducts with U.S. interagency and international partners.
For the Marines, the smallest U.S. military service branch, contractors play an important part in cyber, the general said. “One of the challenges of cyber is that it’s such a dynamic environment,” he explained. “You need people who are educated and current in their specialties and who are available to stay on the job for long periods of time, whereas Marines come and go in the normal assignment process.” Contractors have skill sets that aren’t always available in the active-duty Marine Corps, and can fit neatly into short-term projects, he added. “They all operate under the same clearance requirements, the same authorities, the same rules,” the general said. “That’s one of the things that make them so expensive. They come at a cost, but you have to bear it to make sure that your cyber capabilities are current and that you stay on the cutting edge.” In the newest domain of warfare, the battlefield is evolving, Mills said, and Marine commanders have come to understand the impact cyber can have on defensive and offensive operations. “I think cyber commanders now understand when you go forward you have to be able to defend your systems against intrusion by other states, by rogue elements, and even by hobbyists who are just trying to break in and infiltrate your nets,” the general said. “But they’re also beginning to understand the positive effects cyber can have in your operations against potential enemies. … It’s a very valuable tool in that quiver of arrows that a commander takes forward, and they want to understand how it operates.” In the new domain, even a discussion of weapons veers off the traditional path. A cyber weapon, Mills said, “can be something as simple as a desktop computer. It’s also a vulnerability to you, because it’s a way in which the enemy can enter your Web system if you put the wrong hardware on there or open the wrong attachment or email.” Cyber weapons are much more nuanced than big cannons and large bombs and weapons systems. “The armories of the cyber world are very sophisticated computers and very sophisticated smart people who sit behind those computers and work those issues for you,” the general said. Mills said he’s an infantry officer by trade, so he tends to view everything he does through a combat-arms prism. “I think the definition of combat arms is expanding a little bit these days,” he said. “I don’t think cyber is any longer a communicator’s environment -- it’s an operator’s environment. So we want that cyber expert to sit in the operations shop right next to the air expert, right next to the artillery expert, because we think that’s where it belongs.” Mills pointed out the contrast between a Marine “kitted out” for battle with a Marine dressed for a cyber operation who may be sitting behind a desk in the United States.