Israel and the U.S. military have drawn similar conclusions about how to choose their cyberwarriors; however, the Israelis appear to be establishing a lead in identifying and training their electronic special forces.
The conundrum can be illustrated by a sports metaphor. It involves distinguishing the erratic, eccentric, superstars from the organized, focused geniuses. Both can be naturals. But only one type can lead a team in tackling a problem so huge that it requires many teams working simultaneously to solve its interrelated parts.
Neither Israeli nor U.S. officials will speak publicly about who developed the destructive Stuxnet cyberworm or the Flame intelligence-gathering malware that has been derailing Iran's nuclear weapons development. But the effort involved a specialized kind of team play. Background discussions further reveal an operation that was heavily U.S.-funded and -backed with Washington's intelligence resources. That strategy was applied to a long-term project developed by professionals from both countries whose activities were protected by Israel's unique laws for maintaining the nation's security.
However, both countries face hurdles in finding staff and conducting advanced training for such cyberops. Officials concede the need for a better, earlier, screening system to identify the right people to become cyberwarriors. There is at least one element on which both countries agree. The intellectually arrogant, lone-ranger hacker is not the gold standard for innovative, multi-faceted cyberoperations.
“You have natural, imaginative hackers that apply their brilliance in 360-degree shot patterns,” says U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who is slated to retire in August. “Then you have others, equally brilliant, that are more like engineers who apply [their unique skills] in a way that is more predictable, measurable and easier to manage.”
That analysis underlies a decision made four years ago to put cyberoperations into.
“The judgment is that space and cyber are fundamentally engineering disciplines and that there are real similarities,” says Schwartz. “We are less about innovative products than we are about outcome-driven capabilities. We will continue to lean in the direction of more engineering-focused talent. That's the path we'll stay on. The intelligence community might be in a different place.”
Israel's effort to identify its cybermanpower pool began at least 15 years ago with the establishment of an organization that one of its founders,Maj. Gen. (ret.) Itzik Ben-Israel, will not name; nor will he reveal the number of people involved. He is currently the chairman of Israel's space agency and a leader of the country's cyber effort.
However, another senior Israeli official said the number of recruits with these “very special traits” is “a couple of dozen a year who are picked from the “top 1/1,000th” of the country's students. There are some U.S. students in the program. Generally, top students are required to have fluent language skills in both Hebrew and English.
The cyberprogram is one of roughly 10 Israeli organizations that select and recruit 17-18-year-olds for specialized educations and training. A few are known. Talpiot (Hebrew for “high tower”) trains specialists in physics and mathmatics. Psagot (“mountain peak”) focuses on physics and electronics engineering. Graduates of these related programs already fill many of the top ranks of Israeli industries.
About two years ago, Ben-Israel was appointed by the prime minister to lead a team of experts to help organize a new office—the National Cyber Headquarters. Its new leader is a graduate of the Talpiot who is encouraging the universities to conduct more research in cybertechnology.
“The cyberspecialty for Israel is not new,” says Ben-Israel. “It became popular after the Russian attack on Estonia in 2007. But we started to be engaged at the beginning of the 1990s, when we realized how vulnerable a modern state is—not just its defenses, but power-production, food supplies and banking. Those institutions are in the private and business sectors, so the government decided to build a new agency in 2002 that would be in charge of protecting critical, private and civilian infrastructure.”
In contrast, the U.S. does not have that kind of protection.
“In Israel we solved it, because threats are visible and concrete,” Ben-Israel says. “People are more willing to give up some of their civil rights to be more protected. We've had those laws for 10 years. In the U.S., they don't see the threats as real.”
Another part of the solution could be an international Internet police to monitor for crime and abuses.
“You need international cooperation,” he says. “Who are the bad guys? You have to answer that question.”
Israeli officials start the screening process for the technologically talented to staff the cyber-organization—just as the military screens for its fighter pilots—at 17 years of age.
As a result, “we have an advantage that no one else does,” he says. “Everyone has to go to military service, so we can screen everyone. But even though the screening is complicated, it is not complete. There are kids who have been working with computers since they were 11 or 12 years old. But they don't know how to work with other people. They sit at their computers and don't go out. Their friends are virtual friends.”
U.S. and Israeli officials are both looking at the idea of beginning the screening and development of candidate cyberspecialists as early as 13-14 years of age.
Schwartz agrees that a good time to start cultivating the cyber-talented is around Grade 7, when computer and math skills start to emerge. An Israeli lawmaker tells Aviation Week that the government needs to reach these youngsters before they can be recruited by crime organizations or other countries' intelligence agencies. “We are collaborating with the Navy to develop an assessment of the potential of individuals [and] to predict the success of cyberoperators,” says Mark Maybury, the U.S. Air Force's chief scientist. “I suspect there are some general properties that we will discover are necessary. We should know this within the next year. You can definitely tell which kids enjoy it. Having a passion about a subject is as important as innate talent. What you need are individuals and teams that can think holistically about defense, whether it be in cyberspace, space or air operations. That's the kind of talent the military will need.”
A military cyberproject is not the product of one person. The work on big projects is divided among groups; each is responsible for one portion. The project has to be coordinated through the effort of many people. It took Israeli researchers about three years to figure out the formula.
“Intellectual skill is not enough,” says Ben-Israel. “You need social skills and values. [For the 'lone wolf' type] breaking into the's central computer is a game, a challenge, and sometimes they don't have the necessary judgment. You need values to distinguish between good and bad—what's allowed and what's forbidden. In the beginning we had some failures.”
At least one former recruit is now in jail in North America for cybertheft. Ben-Israel looked to his favorite philosopher—Immanuel Kant—for guidance. His books discuss the attributes of a complete person—pure reason, pure judgment and practical reason, the third element being the realm of ethics and values.
“That's what we look for when we screen those kids,” says Ben-Israel. “We begin with their high-school marks and discussions with their teachers. Then we invite them in for a series of tests and interviews, and select some of them. They have to have the right set of values. That's what we look for.”
Israeli lawmakers acknowledge that a new battlefield—cyberoperations—is opening up, and they may have to recruit younger. But they also worry that such people will be isolated from actual combat and the threat of wounds or death. That omission, they worry, will be an unfair advantage that a normal military person does not have. Several government papers on the subject are in circulation.
“There is a moral question of equality,” says an official with insight into Israel's cyberprograms.
As a possible gauge of national cyberskill, a U.S. cyberprotection company recently gave out marks for cyber-readiness to many countries. Sweden, Finland and Israel received the highest marks; Russia and the U.S. were in the second tier, and China was in the third.