The director of the National Security Agency says his first few dedicated cyber troops will be operational by early fall but the nation can't wait for the full unit to be ready.
The military's Cyber Mission Force, which will eventually contain 6,200 people split into 133 teams, is the largest single unit dedicated to operating in computer networks. It's intended to both attack and defend computer systems around the world.
The U.S. Cyber Command ordered the creation of this dedicated cyber unit in 2012, and Adm. Michael Rogers, who is the director of the NSA and the Cyber Command, says the unit will reach what he called initial operating capability by Sept. 30.
"We find ourselves in a situation a little unusual in the military arena," Rogers told a crowd at the National Press Club Thursday. "As soon as we get a basic framework, we are deploying the teams and putting them against challenges."
Rogers likened it to sending a fighter squadron into action that only had five of its 24 aircraft. Because demand for cybersecurity exceeds capacity, Rogers said, the mission force will be put to work before the agency has time to finish building it.
He said he's trying to build the force, made up of both military personnel and civilians, even as his agency faces budget cuts. He said it'll be fully capable by Sept. 30, 2018.
"I just always feel like we're in a race to make sure we are generating capacity and capability, and that we are doing it faster than those who would attempt to do harm to us," Rogers said. "As you watch what opponents are doing, as I'm watching behaviors out on the net, it's almost visceral."
According to the Department of Defense, about half of the Cyber Mission Force teams will be assigned to protecting military networks from cyber intrusions. Another 20 percent will be dedicated to combat missions. About 10 percent will be assigned to national mission teams to protect the country's infrastructure, and the remaining fifth will be assigned to "support teams."
Rogers said he wants cyber to be integrated into the military and become a tool available to policymakers and operational commanders, as long as it's used legally. He said he's tried to stay mindful about the need to balance protecting the privacy and rights of individuals with the government's duty to protect citizens.
"I always tell [our workers], 'Don't ever forget that at the end, we're dealing with a choice that some human made on a keyboard somewhere else in the world,' " he said. "There was a man or woman on the other end of this."
Victoria Mirian is an intern with NPR's national desk.