Defense Secretary Ash Carter unveiled a new strategy for cyber warfare on Thursday and said the Pentagon should improve its ties to the private sector where most of the field's top talent and technology resides.
On a trip to Northern California's Silicon Valley, Carter highlighted the risks of high-tech digital attacks, saying the Defense Department's sophisticated weapons and the command-and-control networks that control them are "no good if they've been hacked."
"Our reliance on technology has led to real vulnerabilities that our adversaries are eager to exploit," Carter told students at Stanford University.
He said the military will be creating a new unit in Silicon Valley, a first-of-its kind "point-of-partnership." It will probably be located at Moffett Airfield, a former Navy base, in Silicon Valley, according to a senior defense official.
Formally titled the "Defense Innovation Unit X," the small command will be led by a civilian with a military deputy and staffed by an elite team of active-duty, rReserve and civilian personnel, the defense official said.
That team will "scout for breakthrough and emerging technologies; and function as a local interface node for the rest of the department. Down the road, they could potentially help startups find new ways to work with DoD," Carter said.
Similar ventures may follow in other areas with high-tech industries, including the New York City area, a senior defense official said.
Some reservists welcomed the proposal to ramp up the Pentagon's presence in the nation's technology hubs, which could help build up the cyber talent pool in the reserve components.
"There will be people who want to serve but they also don't want to serve on active duty all the time. If the department is set up in areas where there are private-sector tech centers or academic tech centers, you are going to have a higher population of reservists who do this work already," said Col. Mark DiTrolio, commander of the Army Reserve Information Operations Command, in an interview from his home in San Antonio.
The military services are about halfway toward their goal of creating an operational cyber force of about 6,200 troops by the end of next year. The long-term target size for the cyber force remains under discussion.
"We are still thinking about the right investment in the cyber mission force," a senior defense official said. "We'll be looking at that closely over the next year or so to see if we need increased investment in terms of personnel or technology."
Carter's trip to Silicon Valley — the first for a defense secretary in nearly 20 years — was the latest sign that he is making a focus on cyber capabilities central to his tenure in the military's top civilian job.
After taking over the post in February, Carter spoke at U.S. Cyber Command headquarters in Maryland and suggested the command could someday break off to form a separate military service.
In March, he suggested a slate of far-reaching reforms to the military's antiquated personnel system that could help DoD better compete with the private sector for the top talent in the cyber field.
The 33-page official cyber strategy that the Pentagon released April 23 was the first major update since 2011.
After his speech, Carter met with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, followed by a visit to Andreessen Horowitz, a major Valley venture capitalist firm.