The Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) works in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense to strengthen U.S. allies and partners worldwide through training, equipment, and capacity building projects that allow us to work together more effectively to meet shared security challenges. With the growth of malicious cyber activities worldwide, including intrusions and ransomware attacks targeting critical infrastructure, U.S. diplomats have recognized the importance of helping partners enhance the governance of security institutions, and strengthening their capacity to detect, deter, and rapidly mitigate, and respond to international cyber threats and incidents.
Cyber Advisors of the Global Defense Reform Program
Strong and effective security sector institutions are key to strong security partnerships. The Global Defense Reform Program (GDRP), managed by the PM Bureau’s Office of Global Programs and Initiatives (GPI) works with partners to develop and implement organizational reforms to modernize their security institutions, enhance effectiveness and accountability, and better align the security sector to the needs and challenges of the partner nation and its citizens, in places like Albania, Palau, and Kosovo. GDRP advisors assigned to Ecuador, Argentina, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia work side-by-side with counterparts in partner governments’ ministries of defense (MOD) to address cyber defense and cybersecurity challenges. Together, they are working to draft national-level strategies, policies, and procedures; streamlining coordination among agencies in their respective governments involved in cyber issues; establishing effective “command and control”; and recruiting, training, sustaining, and retaining a skilled cyber workforce. Beyond the knowledge these subject matter experts bring to strategic-level cyber planning, these engagements bolster U.S. foreign policy objectives related to cyber defense and cybersecurity.
Following a series of incidents, including threats to election platforms, data breaches, and coordinated malicious cyber activity against Ecuador’s government agencies, U.S. Embassy Quito seized the opportunity to partner with the Government of Ecuador and its defense ministry to address cyber defense issues in support of the country’s whole-of-government cyber strategy.
In January 2021, the GDRP cyber advisor, Gustavo Santiago, arrived in Ecuador and has played a vital role in advising on national-level cyber policy, including by facilitating inter-ministerial agreements on the roles and responsibilities for cyber defense and for protecting Ecuador’s critical infrastructure, which are currently under review for approval. A retired U.S. Army colonel, Gustavo has worked alongside his Ecuadorian counterparts to establish a 10-year plan to build the Ministry of Defense’s cyber capacity – an initiative that garnered the support of Ecuador’s previous and current government.
Since his arrival, Gustavo has shared his expertise with the Ecuadorian defense ministry to help draft foundational documents to plan the development of its cyber capabilities. This is broken out into four areas: (1) prepare the Ecuadorian defense ministry for its assigned role under the National Cybersecurity Policy—including to protect national digital critical infrastructure; (2) increase the Ecuadorian defense ministry’s coordination with Computer Security Incident Response Teams to respond to cyber incidents and mitigate the risk of future threats; (3) enhance the Cyber Defense Command’s cyber defense capabilities; and (4) implement a cyber defense program for the Ministry of Defense in line with the national cyber posture.
This partnership between the United States and Ecuador came at a critical moment when strategic competitors were seeking to exert influence in the cyber domain. Gustavo continues working to build connections and new relationships between the Government of Ecuador and other U.S. government experts that work in the cybersecurity arena.
In the next few weeks, a Global Defense Reform Program cyber advisor will arrive in Buenos Aires to join the Ministry of Defense and assist the Joint Staff’s Cyber Command (Comando Conjunto de Ciberdefensa or CCCD) with identifying and addressing cyber vulnerabilities and solutions. Argentina has had a robust national cyber policy for several years, but its governmental agencies and military services have observed how cyber security and policy issues can remain within organizational silos. Like in the case of GDRP Ecuador, the GDRP Argentina cyber advisor will focus on helping the Ministry of Defense coordinate across organizational lines and ensure that the ministerial-level cyber policies and strategies of the CCCD effectively support the National Cybersecurity Strategy. The placement of the cyber advisor within the Ministry of Defense is a notable development in the U.S.-Argentina relationship, which will foster trust between the United States and Argentina and reinforce the importance of partnerships and cyber cooperation in our hemisphere.
In Europe, the Global Defense Reform Program is augmenting support to Central and Eastern European countries seeking to defend against Russian influence and malicious cyber activity. In early September, then-GDRP advisor to Bulgaria, Rich Graham, accompanied Brigadier General Vasil Sabinski, Commander of Communication Information Systems Cybersecurity Defense Command, as an official delegate to the 140th anniversary ceremony to commemorate the creation of the Bulgarian Naval Academy. To tackle cybersecurity challenges, the military has launched a new cyber program of instruction to prepare its next generation of cyber leaders. This program will equip students with the practical and technical knowledge needed to lead an effective cybersecurity operations center, modeled to blend with the practices of the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense’s Cyber Defense Center. A key component of the GDRP advisor’s work is to assist with the transformation of this Center to deliver state-of-the-art cyber support and help prepare and train the government’s workforce for future cyber challenges. Although still in the early stages, the GDRP advisor has made progress in building relationships to set the conditions for the success of the cyber partnership with Bulgaria.
Since becoming the 30th member of NATO in March 2020, North Macedonia is focused on developing the cyber policies, infrastructure, and capabilities necessary to be an active and ready member of the alliance.
This engagement will assist North Macedonia’s defense ministry to transform cyber defense planning, develop and implement a comprehensive cyber strategy to define the roles and responsibilities of different agencies that play a role in national-level cyber efforts.
Finally, this GDRP project will focus on building North Macedonia’s expertise and capacity in the cyber domain; promote good governance; increase transparency, stability, and efficiency in cyber defense planning and coordination; and enable the North Macedonia government to operate and respond more responsibly and effectively to cyber requirements.
By elevating the importance of cybersecurity at the strategic level, the United States is helping countries deter, defend against, and respond to malicious cyber activity and, ultimately, protect critical infrastructure – including election systems — for societies around the world. PM Bureau’s cyber portfolio has grown rapidly in recent years to address this demand for strategic-level planning, policy, and cybersecurity assistance with defense partners.
About the Author: Benjamin Fisher serves as a Portfolio Manager in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Global Programs and Initiatives at the U.S. Department of State.