Top military scientist: building a cyber army with few qualified recruits

WASHINGTON _ The Air Force has a message for computer geeks: send us your resumes.

At least that is the word from Mark Maybury, a computer scientist at the government-funded MITRE corporation in Bedford who was tapped in 2010 to serve as the chief scientist for the US Air Force.

The Lowell native and Chelmsford resident, who will return from Washington to his old job this summer, says the Pentagon is struggling to maintain its technological edge in the realm of cyberspace.

And a primary reason is a lack of new talent.

“We intend to add about 6,000 defense-wide in the next year, just for cyber,’’ Maybury said in an interview Wednesday in his Pentagon office where he advises the Air Force how to invest the $2.3 billion it spends annually on science and technology research. “We’ll probably have to add about a 1,000 people in the Air Force.’’


But officials are having trouble locating them, he said, especially US citizens who qualify for a high-level security clearance.

“If you told me I want you to hire 1,000 cyber guys tomorrow, I’d count up all my friends and might have 60, or if really lucky, might find 100,’’ he explained. “But 1,000?’’

The scramble for qualified civilian and military technicians steeped in cyber-defense comes at a time when top officials insist the United States is under assault from computer hackers around the world, especially in Russia, China, and North Korea.

Intelligence officials have been particularly concerned by a spate of attacks that recently took down banking systems in South Korea and a slew of government databases in Saudi Arabia.

Anyone with a compter and an Internet connection is a potential threat. “Cyber warfare is being democratized,’’ Maybury said.

But as the US military — and society at large — grows more reliant on computers, the risk of attack will increase, said Maybury, 48, who oversaw the drafting of a new cyber strategy for the Air Force called Cyber Vision 2025 that was released earlier this month.

For example, the Air Force’s F-4 Phantom jet, retired in the 1980s, depended on computers for only five percent of its operations, he noted. The next-generation F-35 is almost entirely computerized.


“Software can be corrupted,’’ he said. “It might not even be malicious; it was just poorly designed. More software means more opportunity for vulnerability.’’

Another dire statistic: Specialists currently estimate that there are 2.9 million different types of “malware,’’ or computer viruses designed to intrude into computer networks to steal information, shut them down, or otherwise corrupt their operations.

Maybury said predictions are that number could grow exponentially to as many as 300 million types of malware by 2025.

“We do not yet have the kind of early warning radar that we would like to have’’ to provide advance warning of computer attacks, in Maybury’s view. “We are able to get out ahead of the threat to a certain degree but the reality is we are not quite there where we are in other domains like air and space. We don’t have the cyber situational awareness we want or need.’’

To get it the Air Force — and the country at large — will need more skilled people. But there just isn’t enough of them, he stressed. It is a growing problem despite recent recruitment efforts .

“I don’t think we’re in any better of a position,’’ he said. “I think we’re probably in a worse position, in the sense our dependencies have grown and the complexity of the systems has grown, meaning you need more computing folks.’’

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