In a Friday visit to the local base, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also inspected an Army Stryker vehicle, visited with members of an Air Force squadron that calls in aviation support for ground troops and strode inside a cavernous C-17.

Share story

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD — In a Friday visit to this Western Washington military base, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter inspected an Army Stryker vehicle, visited with members of an Air Force squadron that calls in aviation support for ground troops and strode inside a cavernous C-17 that can evacuate the wounded or precision-drop cargo.

But in remarks to reporters, he spotlighted the accomplishments of a small Washington Air Guard unit — the 252d Cyber Operations Group — that works to improve the nation’s defenses against computer hacking.

Most of these several hundred citizen soldiers have day jobs in the tech industry.

When they report for duty at a modest headquarters building on base, they tackle assignments ranging from nuclear security to a two-week test effort last spring to try to penetrate the computer system of the Snohomish County Public Utility District.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“This building where we are sitting, and the mission represented by the guys standing with me, is famous throughout the country,” Carter said, as he joined Guard leaders after a classified briefing on the 252d’s activities.

Carter’s visit was the first to JBLM by a defense secretary since 2008, when Robert Gates came to the then-separate installations of McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis as U.S. troops were fighting both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates’ agenda included a stopover at Madigan Army Medical Center, which was treating some of the casualties from the large-scale deployments.

Carter’s stopover came in a new era in which small numbers of Special Forces and other units still deploy to Afghanistan and other war zones, but most of the large-scale overseas operations are military exercises carried out with Asian allies.

There also has been a restructuring, with the 2010 creation of a joint base that seeks to better integrate the Army and Air Force operations here.

Carter talked about the base as a key installation, with responsibilities that include partnering with Asian military allies and staying prepared for a potential conflict with North Korea.

“We stand alert there every single day … If anything were to happen there — a crisis or a war — forces from JBLM would be part of the force flow that would strengthen the defense of the Korean Peninsula.”

Carter also talked about the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State group, and the need to “make it clear that there is no such thing as a state that is based on that ideology.”

As part of that effort, Carter said he would not rule out putting the Washington Air National Guard’s cyber operations unit to work on an offensive strategy to try to disrupt the Internet outreach operations of the Islamic State group.

That would be a big change for the 252d. Since it was formed back in the late 1990s, the unit has focused solely on defensive cybersecurity efforts, according to unit officials.

One example of its work involved an investigation of a 2010 Air Force communications malfunction that briefly knocked offline the link to 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The 252d team concluded that there was no cybersecurity breach that caused the communication breakdown, and then looked for any vulnerabilities, according to Lt. Col. Kenneth Borchers, the unit’s deputy commander.

More recently, the Snohomish County PUD enlisted the 252d to probe its security systems.

Borchers said that the PUD had strong security. Still, during the hacking effort last spring, the Guard unit was able to breach the PUD’s defenses, and then offer recommendations for improvements.

“We learned a huge amount. This demonstrated that there are additional things that we can do,” said Benjamin Beberness, the PUD’S chief information officer.

Carter said that it is difficult to recruit and retain the kind of tech-industry talent needed for full-time jobs in the nation’s armed services, and that the Washington Air Guard unit should serve as a model for the rest of the country.

“This is a pathfinding way of doing things,” Carter said. “Bring in the high-tech sector in a very direct way to the mission of defending the country. Absolutely we are going to do more of it.”