Every day, the United States is bombarded with new and greater threats to national security — though instead of firearms, these attackers’ weapon of choice is a computer. Finding that the need for cybersoldiers greatly outweighs the supply, the U.S. Army Reserve has partnered with six universities, including Drexel University, to help grow the capabilities of its cyber defense program through the Cyber Public Private Partnership Initiative. Thanks in large part to the work of Norman Balchunas, a retired Air Force colonel, this past week saw the debut of the program at Drexel.
“We have a long history of cybersecurity training and research, really,” Steven Weber, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, said. “The [National Security Agency] and the [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] have a certification program for universities that meet rather stringent guidelines. If you meet all their guidelines for providing cybersecurity education, then you can be named as a center of academic excellence in information assurance.” Drexel has met those standards for 10 years now, and Weber believes that certification was a major factor for the Army Reserve to consider Drexel as one of its university partners.
Despite having classes and research in the field of cybersecurity for nearly a decade, Drexel only recently formed the Cybersecurity Institute — a move Weber believes was a long time coming.
“It’s useful to have this institute to provide a sort of internal coherence to all that” he said of the institute’s formation. “The different degrees, the different colleges, the different faculty in the different colleges can all finally come together under one umbrella. The institute serves as a sort of ‘one stop shop’ for all of Drexel’s cybersecurity research.” This was also an important step in shining a spotlight on Drexel’s cybersecurity program; one that Weber admits is in need of a bit more publicity.
While there are no citizen soldiers currently involved in the program (it is, after all, only a week old), Weber has high hopes for the enrollment numbers.
“The intention of the program is that the first year will only be a small cohort, as the Army would recognize the University’s need to gear up for the incoming students, but the hope would be that in subsequent years, a much larger scope of students would be involved,” Weber said.
The eventual goal of the program would be have enrolled 3,500-5,000 Army Reserve Soldiers across the six involved institutions, with a potential for 100 reservists to come to Drexel each year.
The sort of training that Drexel aims to provide ranges from the textbook and theoretical to more hands on, the cyber equivalent to a firing range. Weber feels this is an integral part of what makes this program so important. “A soldier needs to have a facility with access to small arms. How do you learn how to fire a gun? You go to a firing range. A soldier who is now a cyberwarrior needs to have some facility with cyberattack and cyberdefense.”
For the partnership program, this would include a lab that would allow the students to run practice drills, training directly with the exact kinds of skills that they would need to demonstrate in order to stop a real threat.
The benefits for the program are seemingly limitless, providing optimal conditions for the four players involved — the Army Reserve, the citizen soldiers themselves, the University and the industry.
“The Army wants better trained soldiers. The soldiers themselves want to be better trained. The University wants to provide better training, and the industry wants to hire better trained cybersecurity specialists. And that’s really the genesis of why the [partnership] program exists,” Weber said, describing the program as a win-win.
Over the past two years, it has become increasingly apparent that cybersecurity education is a real growing need, and this program, in the words of Weber, gives Drexel the perfect opportunity to provide training to the soldiers who are going to be fighting at the front lines.
“It’s always an honor for Drexel to be working with our Army Reserve on such a meaningful project as this. It’s going to be a great partnership and I’m happy to that our University has engaged with the Army in this way,” he said.