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​—Wilson Brissett

In growing the US military’s ability to effectively wage cyber warfare, top DOD leaders agreed on Tuesday that public-private partnerships will become more crucial. USAF’s Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. William Bender said the most important challenge facing cyber warfare is to “bring operators and vendors together to work on interoperability.” Bender said getting this relationship right will be key to “building an operational cyber squadron.”

Maj. Gen. Ed Wilson, deputy principal cyber advisor to the Secretary of Defense, said he is working to grow DOD’s partnership with “industry, academia, and especially small start-ups” in an effort to develop solutions to quickly emerging threats on the battlefield. “Public-private partnerships,” he said, “are part of the secret sauce” for staying ahead of our adversaries’ attempts to disrupt missions and launch cyberattacks.

Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, agreed that the DOD’s “vital, continuing, and robust relationship with industry” is “what makes our [cyber defense] abilities unmatched in the world.”

Even so, the focus of DOD partnerships may be moving away from the academic world toward greater connections with industry. While Wilson showed an openness to new thinking no matter the source, saying “we will not discriminate with good ideas,” he cautioned that academia is “great for concepts” but not so much for “new capabilities.”

An alternative would be “welcoming industry, interacting with industry in non-traditional ways,” Zabel said. She said the Pentagon has been “outsourcing some activities that have traditionally been DOD,” and she pointed to model initiatives like the Hack the Pentagon program and the Pentagon’s willingness to publish source code for its new IT system. When a DOD “source code gets published,” she said, it allows the “white hat hackers” to identify weaknesses in the system before the “black hat hackers” can find and exploit them.

Zabel also thinks that new ways of structuring public-private partnerships can help the Pentagon capitalize on industry know-how. She said her office is working on a draft request for proposal, to be out by the end of the month, for a “systems engineering and technology innovation contract” that will seek ideas to “bring a sense of innovation to our contracts” with industry partners.

In addition to non-traditional relationships with industry, Wilson called for the DOD to work alongside “non-natural partners,” especially international allies “from the Far East.” He said in the world of cyber proficiency, the US military needs “to humble ourselves to be taught” by those who have paved the way forward globally.

The officers made their comments Tuesday at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association conference in Vienna, Va.