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The Cyber Defense Review

How Do Cyber Operations Look in 2025?

By 2LT Jason David | April 11, 2016


The United States military has made significant strides to counter the increasing number of worldwide cyber threats. Recently, the U.S. Army created a Cyber Branch as the newest of its basic branches. Now the transition becomes necessary to integrate the Cyber Branch into its important, future everyday role on the battlefield. Currently, most of the cyber force is congregated in certain branch specific areas. This allows for effective command and control of these units, but limits their operational utility. Despite being able to access cyberspace from anywhere in the world, using cyber to its full capability requires adaptation at the tactical level, and on the battlefield. The definition of cyber is “of, relating to, or involving computers or computer networks.”[1] A dedicated cyber force is important for defense and offense alike on the national stage, but what about cyber on the battlefield? With the increase of computers and accompanying networks on the battlefield, a deployable cyber force becomes a necessity.

One of the ‘game changers’ on the modern battlefield are the multiple missions conducted by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). These highly trained professionals have been rapidly deployed worldwide in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now with US military operations in Afghanistan transitioning, special ops missions will stay constant. With over 66,000 personnel assigned to USSOCOM, and more than a $10B budget, this is one segment of the military that is not decreasing in size.[2] Operations occur worldwide, from the Middle East to South America to Africa. This force is focused on US strategic interests, while operating with a reduced signature to accomplish their mission in sensitive and dangerous environments. But how can this force increase its effectiveness? Integrating cyber operations with the special operations community will enhance this elite fighting force effectiveness by 2025 with the addition of one cyber operations specialist to every tactical Special Operations Forces (SOF) team


USSOCOM has a broad mission statement that allows flexibility when responding to global threats. USSOCOM currently supports the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) located around the world. For example, the 10th Special Forces Group is geographically aligned with U.S Africa Command (USAFRICOM), supporting that GCC in both named and unnamed operations.[3]

USSOCOM has a total of 12 core activities for training and equipping its operators. In this article, I focus on three frequent SOF activities, which include special reconnaissance, counterterrorism with an added focus on foreign internal defense, and unconventional warfare. Special reconnaissance is a core activity that often provides actionable intelligence to support other SOF core missions. Counterterrorism and unconventional warfare are two core activities used extensively in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Despite only focusing on these three, cyber can be applied to all 12 core activities.

In order to accomplish this diverse mission set, each branch of the military has different groups of special ops professionals. For the Army, it is the Green Berets and the 75th Ranger Regiment who are often supported by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Navy has their Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams, and the Marines have Force Recon, which has recently re-designated the 1st Marine Raider Battalion. The Air Force is also a member of the Special Ops community employing para-rescue missions, rescuing downed airmen behind enemy lines.

These operators primarily work in small teams with the Army Green Berets typically having a team of 12 soldiers. Each member serves a specific role from the Commissioned Officer, who is the Team Leader, the Warrant Officer who is the Assistant Team Leader, to the several Non-Commissioned Officers serving as the Communications, and Medical Sergeants.[4] The SOF team can also operate in even smaller teams, depending on the mission.

The special operations community relies heavily on the human dimension. From the actual operators to the extensive support structure constructed for operational success, “people are more important than hardware,” as Admiral William McRaven, former Commander of USSOCOM, has asserted many times.[5] With these agile professionals, technology has always been an additional operational tool. SOF has the latest equipment and technology at its disposal to carrying out a mission. SOF prides itself on this no-nonsense approach to technology — strip down the non-essentials and use what it is necessary for the mission, while seeking a better, more refined solution.[6]

Integrating cyber into a SOF team follows this same concept as any other new technology or weapon integrated and employed by this community. They will shape and mold it to fit their needs allowing them to be more effective at their missions, otherwise it will be discarded; however, because of the breadth and depth that cyber covers, it is a mistake to disregard this critical warfighting domain. Cyber will enhance the most advanced and elite fighting force in the world as the stakes and risks grow exponentially in special ops warfare.

Now how can this integration be implemented? It can be argued that true integration occurs at the tactical level. SOF teams could use cyber as part of an operation with another element in the TOC or command center in support. Having the cyber element at the tactical level with an additional support element would increase team effectiveness and mission success. Cyber is a battlefield tool ‘enhancer’ if used properly and to its full potential. To accomplish this implementation, either the entire SOF team or a single member should be trained in cyber operations. The most plausible operator for the job would be the communications sergeant, which would translate accordingly across the different branches of the military, not just the Army.

The special ops communications professional already has duties vital to the success of the mission. They communicate with command positions, provide status updates, and if need be, coordinate medical evacuation. Adding the cyber dimension to SOF responsibilities is not ideal, but neither is training the entire team in cyber operations. Training the entire team would require team members receiving exhaustive cyber instruction, which would be combined with their primary specialty. Training the entire team would also require additional resources and time. Cyber integration should not negatively impact the operational ability of a SOF team. The last option, and most suitable is to add another person on the SOF team, the cyber sergeant, who will specialize in the cyber operations critical to mission success. Cyber requirements can vary from mission to mission, but eventually would be an essential addition. The cyber sergeant would be a qualified team member – if the sergeant was a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL, they would attend Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), or Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, which are both grueling courses designed to take only those physically and mentally prepared. Afterwards, the new operator transitions to more specialized training. This construct resembles Special Forces medical specialist training. Everyone on the SOF team is trained in battlefield first aid, but the medical specialist carries the equipment required to perform more advanced life support techniques. Now applying the same concept to cyber, the entire team would be trained in cyber fundamentals, employing the various pieces of technology in their arsenal, while the cyber sergeant would carry and deploy the equipment necessary for the operation. This equipment would be small and lightweight with much of its effectiveness held in the palm of the operators’ hand.

The advantage of training a single team member for this cyber task is that the operator is now a fully functional SOF member with the requisite training. The SOF landscape of missions is diverse and complex, which means not every mission will require the same personnel. Some missions require a fire team, while others require an entire team or two; it constantly varies. The cyber element will also change with some missions requiring either single or multiple technology pieces, while others could easily be more traditional. Because of the US military shift towards a more technologically adept fighting force, the cyber element will be regularly employed.[7]

With technological advances to all warfighting domains, the cyber sergeant’s arsenal will be powerful and compact. This would consist of an upgraded netbook for its ease of mobility and practicality of size. Basic hacking tools can be installed on this netbook in order to gather any intelligence found on an enemy computer. The netbook can also be used for any variety of network operations such as connecting through a backdoor to a wireless or wired network penetrating its security. Another cyber tool that can be employed is a drone used for surveillance, but with capabilities expanding at exponential rates. In 2011, two individuals teamed up to build am email reading drone using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment such as a simple 1 GHz computer, a WIFI card, Bluetooth, and a GSM SIM card (Global System for Mobile Communications). The drone sniffs wireless networks, intercept phone calls, and reroutes them all while airborne, and only weighing 10 pounds.[8] With advances in technology by 2025, cyber drone capabilities will be even more useful to SOF. Drones will exist in a smaller, more aerodynamic frame possibly weighing two to three pounds, easily carried on the back of a SOF operator. Another simple tool for cyber special ops is a small but powerful hard drive with the ability to copy files significantly faster than anything available today. With a portable 2 Terabytes (TB) hard drive available today, and using Moore’s Law and the equation Pn = Po x 2n where Pn is future processing power, Po is current processing power, and N is the number of years divided by two, the amount of storage available in ten years is 64 TB.[9] Because the SOF team collects data on varying conditions, a portable and interchangeable sensor suite that connects to the netbook and allows real time data to be collected would be complementary and effective. The interchangeability permits flexibility when it comes to collecting and utilizing data on the battlefield.

Wearable technology is another option for either the entire team or just the cyber sergeant. There is significant cost benefit outfitting just the 13th member of the SOF team. A heads-up display (HUD) may sound too futuristic, but is in use right now and can display pertinent information to each SOF team member such as location or even biometrics. Body temperature and heart rate tracking could be a lifesaving asset, which can then be relayed to the ops center for further monitoring. A significant ‘game changer’ would be a HUD connecting with an operator’s weapon to increase accuracy or count ammunition in the magazine while being connected to other third party weapons such as a Predator drone or setting a Target Reference Point (TRP) for an airstrike or artillery deployment. Displaying other team members’ locations plays a role in situational awareness. The Army has already tested various options for wearable technology such as the innovative Google Glass in conjunction with a “chemical, biological, and radiological detection suite.”[10] Wearable technology should be considered a part of the cyber suite of capabilities simply by relating it back to the definition of cyber, “…involving computers or computer network.” The HUD is a computer, one that is modified in size, and functionally designed for SOF. It would also be connected to other devices, emitting a signal both the ops center as well as to other team members on the ground. Carrying and wearing technology transforms the capabilities of a SOF team, but this should not take away from the human element. Military professionals make all this technology work, and if the technology fails, they will have to continue the mission despite the setback. Technology is intended to be a force enhancer, not a substitute.


Special reconnaissance is critical to gaining intelligence in support of other core activities. All SOF teams train for this essential activity. Covert reconnaissance paints the picture of the battlefield before the conventional forces arrive, “employing military capabilities not normally found in conventional forces.”[11] SOF teams are able to provide critical information to battlefield planners because of their unique location and capabilities on the battlefield. Some of the essential tasks include target acquisition, area assessment, and NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) reconnaissance.[12]

First, target acquisition refers to the “…detection, identification, and location of a target in sufficient detail to permit the effective engagement.”[13] Although this can be conducted without a cyber component, it could be more effectively utilized employing a drone providing real time video to the cyber sergeant of a specific target or potential enemy in the area. A night vision attachment to the drone would prove a useful capability. The SOF team collects information on weather, climate, and geography in the area, which is made easier and more accurate with the use of a sensor suite carried by the cyber sergeant. The climate, weather, and NBC sensor suite is ideally attached to the HUD, and would collect and process all the data on the netbook, and then transmit back to the ops center for further analysis and planning.

Next, area assessment is the “continuous and generalized or specific collection and evaluation of information about a specific country, region, or other defined area of interest.”[14] This approach is similar to target acquisition. A drone can be used to survey the area and gather intelligence while a HUD with a sensor suite can be used for intelligence of the surroundings to “confirm, correct, refute, or add to other intelligence.”[15]

Lastly, NBC reconnaissance collects data pertaining to the existence (or not) of nuclear, biological, or chemical agents. This information determines the extent of the contamination, and the operational repercussions.[16] Similar to target acquisition and area assessment, the most effective piece of cyber technology would be the HUD with an attached or integrated sensor suite to detect contamination. Accuracy is the most important feature of the sensor suite because false positives or false negatives, could prove life threatening. The HUD with its attached sensor suite should be extensively tested for accuracy in order protect the lives of the operators.


Counterterrorism is another mission type that has been heavily utilized over the past 15 years. Media accounts of special operations from Afghanistan and Iraq has allowed the general public insight into the special operations community, which has been previously distant and anonymous. At its core, counterterrorism seeks to neutralize terrorists and their networks to “render them incapable” of using fear and coercion to achieve their goals.[17]

According to Dr. Seth Jones, RAND Corporation political scientist, and former advisor to the USSOCOM commander, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, there are a few unique ways to combat terrorism; one of which is foreign internal defense.[18] This has been employed in Iraq and Afghanistan by training local forces to defend their own nations from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and most recently, ISIS. Despite differences in equipment and weapons, cyber training would be relevant with the cyber sergeant having the knowledge and capabilities needed to train locals in cyber fundamentals and general training in local area networks, defense against cyberattacks, and even the use of online psychological warfare. This training would positively impact the ‘local’ operational environment.


The last activity is unconventional warfare, which Dr. Jones discussed in his 2015 testimony before the US House of Representatives, and offered meaningful insight on SOF operations such as intelligence gathering or working with local tribal leaders.[19] From the Joint Publication on Special Operations, unconventional warfare is defined as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”[20] [21]

Cyber improves battlefield operations and ‘unconventional’ missions. The cyber sergeant would gather intelligence with the use of the drone package, while the HUD enhances airstrikes through precision. This combines the battlefield operations with the technology issued by the SOF team, but there is also a support role offered by cyber in unconventional warfare. Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) is an essential component of Special Operations with key roles outlined in the Psychological Operations field manual, FM 3-05.30.[22] The 2005 field manual is outdated when it comes to cyber support of psychological operations, but can still be applied to the roles of PSYOPS.

PSYOPS has the capability to be utilized at every level of combat, from strategic, to operational, and to the tactical level, supporting leaders’ goals and objectives. The first role of PSYOPS is to influence foreign populations. Terrorist organizations do this through propaganda. ISIS, for example, uses the Internet and social media to publish horrific videos to instill fear in populations, and recruit new followers. PSYOPS have the capability to broadcast media using technology, including radio and television, but arguably more effective is cyber related effects.[23] Because of the ‘cyber era’, more of the world’s population have access to the Internet through mobile devices and computers, making this a viable domain for psychological operations. Influencing local populations with the use of cyber can change the battlefield landscape. The drone carried by the cyber sergeant could be programmed to intercept cell phone numbers, and send a mass text to all those phones. This would be a very ‘personal’ way to communicate with the local population.

Unconventional warfare is a broad mission set for SOF teams. There are multiple options available to a commander to complete the mission in support of local forces.  Many different aspects will be taken into consideration to include psychological operations, if necessary, direct action tasks, or even intelligence collection. Regardless of how many different options are available to the commander, cyber can be used in almost every scenario.



            The cyber integration of the US military has been limited to the strategic level.[24] Now the Army is making a transition to push cyber down to the tactical level and integrate cyber with conventional forces. Cyber is currently used to support SOF, but it is imperative that it is employed in a combat role. USSOCOM should employ a single trained individual to be the cyber expert for each SOF team. This allows for that one SOF professional to be a cyber specialist and integral member of the team – dramatically enhancing the mission.

This cyber specialist will use equipment specifically modified for special operations or even a specific mission. The core SOF activities are extensive, but cyber can play a vital role in all of them from the tactical perspective. Some examples of this include special reconnaissance, counterterrorism with foreign internal defense, and unconventional warfare. Special reconnaissance can be improved using drones to gather intelligence. Training foreign troops in cyber operations is a core counterterrorism activity. Finally, unconventional warfare, which has a multitude of different aspects for a successful mission like direct action and psychological operations, can use cyber in assisting in disrupting the enemy. Ultimately, cyber will increase its role within the US military from conventional forces to unconventional forces, making a valuable contribution on the battlefield.


[1] “Cyber,” Merriam-Webster, (accessed July 12, 2015).

[2] Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress”, April 28, 2015 (accessed July 22, 2015).

[3] Joseph Votel, “Statement of General Joseph L. Votel, U.S. Army Commander United States Special Operations Command before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities”, March 18, 2015,  (accessed July 12, 2015).

[4] “Team Members Operational Detachment Alpha,”, (accessed July 14, 2015).

[5] William McRaven, “SOCOM 2020 Strategy”, Defense Innovation Marketplace,   (accessed July 14, 2015).

[6] Tyler Rogoway, “Book Reveals New Details About Stealth Black Hawks Used In Bin Laden Raid,” Foxtrot Alpha, October 2 2015, (accessed February 6, 2016).

[7] Patrick Michael Duggan, “Strategic Development of Special Warfare in Cyberspace,” October 1, 2015, (accessed February 7, 2016).

[8] Mike Tassey and Rich Perkins, “Can a Drone Read Your Email,” Spycast, November 17, 2014, (accessed July 19, 2015).

[9] “Moore’s Law,” University of Missouri -St. Louis, (accessed July 30, 2015).

[10] Sean Gallagher, “Killer Apps, Literally: Wearable and Smartphone Tech on the Battlefield,” Arstechnica, May 23, 2014, (accessed July 22, 2015).

[11] Special Operations Command, “JP 3-05 – Special Operations,” July 16, 2014, (accessed July 9, 2015).

[12] Department of Army, “FM 31-20-5 – Special Reconnaissance Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures,” March 23, 1993, (accessed July 20, 2015).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Special Operations Command, “JP 3-05 – Special Operations,” July 16, 2014, (accessed July 9, 2015).

[18] Seth Jones, “Counterterrorism and the Role of Special Forces,” April 8, 2014, (accessed July 22, 2015).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Special Operations Command, “JP 3-05 – Special Operations,” July 16, 2014, (accessed July 9, 2015).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Department of Army, “FM 3-05-30 – Psychological Operations,” April 2005, (accessed July 21, 2015).

[23] Ibid.

[24] David Vergun, “Cyber Chief: Army Cyber Force Growing ‘exponentially,’” March 5, 2015, (accessed Oct 20, 2015).

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