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hen a group of cadets first approached the Commandant, Brig. Gen.Joe Ramirez ’79, last year about forming a cyber unit, he didn’t take them seriously. “Quite frankly, I was skeptical about how long this would last,” he said. “I thought, ‘This will be the latest fad.’ But it’s not. It’s growing because these cadets understand that the cyberthreat is getting bigger every day.”
Ramirez now sees the unit as an essential component in the university’s—and the country’s—cybersecurity mission. Recently, the National Defense Authorization Act classified Texas A&M and the other five senior military colleges in the U.S. as “Cyber Institutes.”
“We are asking ourselves, ‘How do we take that title and turn it into something the nation can use?” Ramirez said. “I would like Texas A&M to be the place the U.S. government, big business and the Department of Defense come to say, ‘I need help in this particular area of cyber.’ And I would like the Corps of Cadets to be an essential part of developing solutions to address those cyber issues for Texas A&M.”
While Ramirez and other university officials coordinate the big picture, cadets like Nathan Powell ’19 are busy building the cyber unit, which now has 40 members. The unit meets once per week, and its primary focus is helping all members earn three certificates that represent a baseline knowledge of cybersecurity measures. Cadets learn information technology skills, how a computer works down to the hardware level and basic security policy on the defensive side. “The certificates give them a leg up in either getting placement in a cyber military profession or in the government or private sector,” said Powell, a computer science major. “They show that cadets have the skills and talent to go further with the proper training after college.”
Ramirez said that the military and related agencies have already begun asking him how many cadets have certifications. “When I talked to representatives of the NSA in San Antonio, they asked about two things,” Ramirez said. “Number one was security clearances for our cadets, and the second was those certifications. When you have cadets with both of those, they’re in high demand.”
The unit also attends cyber competitions and hears from guest speakers, who are brought in to discuss real-world issues and solutions. Ramirez would like to secure funding to send cadets to cyber events and to bring in more speakers. Another top priority is helping cadets pay for the three certifications, which together can run as high as $1,000. “We help financially as much as possible, but with 40 cadets currently and a growing population of cadets interested in cyber, it adds up,” Ramirez said. “My goal is to support every cadet interested in the cyber field who wants to earn those certifications, and this is where former students can really help us. It’s an investment because these are the young men and women that will be helping their companies, the government, the Department of Defense and our country in the future. These are the future 'cyber warriors' who will be fighting the war for us.”
ecause Texas A&M’s cybersecurity initiative is so new, there is tremendous energy and opportunity surrounding it. Currently 75 faculty members from a variety of colleges with an interest in cybersecurity meet on an informal basis. Ragsdale envisions a day when the university has a formal interdisciplinary faculty for cybersecurity. “We’re not there yet,” he acknowledged. “But this is how the university will best keep up with cyber issues and advancements—by having faculty across departments work closely together in the development of curriculum.”
With such an integrated team, the university will be set up for more research dollars as well, Ragsdale said. The National Science Foundation, an important funding agency, highly values projects in cybersecurity that include a social behavior and economic aspect.
The focus on cybersecurity has already yielded substantial research funding. Since 2010, Texas A&M faculty have secured $22 million in external funds from public and private sector partners to support cybersecurity research and educational activities, with more than 95 percent of that awarded since 2015.
More research opportunities are in the works. The Texas A&M University System is building a facility on the RELLIS Campus where researchers and industry partners can stage and test the “internet of things”—smart products such as kitchen appliances, thermostats and doorbells—in a practical environment. “It would be an analog to an ordinary home,” Cambone said. “We could use it as a base for looking at the security of various devices, such as transport networks like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 5G.
We can see how these interact both in the home environment and in the back end where all the data is being stored and acted upon.” There are naming opportunities for this center.
When it comes to research, former students have a large part to play, Cambone said. He is hoping to establish a program in which the university can help small- and medium-sized businesses with cybersecurity concerns and issues. To get to that point, Cambone would like Aggie former students who own businesses that need help with protecting their systems to work with the university. “We need support from Aggies with small and medium enterprises who can be pathfinders for us, helping us develop the means and methods of delivering cybersecurity capabilities to those who need it,” he said.
There is also a strong call for Aggie-owned businesses to offer internshipsto students studying cybersecurity. “They need real-world experience, so having former students offer paid internships, co-ops or part-time work is important,” Cambone added. In return, these business owners will gain new insights and tactics for securing their companies—leading-edge approaches, not last year’s (or last decade’s) fixes.
“Technology has been advancing so rapidly that policies, statutes, the law and even cybersecurity practice are falling further behind,” said Ragsdale. “We have the chance to reverse this trend and get ahead of this challenge. By building on the momentum we have generated in recent years, when new capabilities are developed and technologies fall off the assembly line, our graduates, as leaders in their respective industries, will have already envisioned and addressed many of the underlying security and privacy implications.”
Ragsdale notes that Texas A&M has always aimed to produce, “leaders of character for the greater good” and sees cybersecurity savviness as firmly in the realm of the greater good. “Since we are all increasingly dependent on an ever-expanding array of interconnected systems,” he said, “enhancement to the safety and security of these systems is clearly in all our best interests.”