"Equilibrium of Power: Turning the Tables on the Adversary in Cyberspace"

By Ian Leatherman

May 14, 2024

While growing up in Idaho, I had the opportunity to work as a summer intern at the Idaho National Laboratory, where I was exposed to the world of nuclear power. I was able to see great national engineering achievements such as Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I, the first nuclear reactor to produce electricity) and the Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR). I also saw the physics leading to sustainable nuclear power be championed through the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) yet fall as coordinated fear, uncertainty, and doubt overcame technical papers and data. I got to see first-hand the impact a successful intersection of extreme physics and complex engineering can have but also the toil and delay that politics and non-technical opinions can have. Exposure to the people and physics of nuclear power as an intern is what led to my initial Naval career. 

My time in the nuclear Navy was a good 60 years after Admiral Rickover started the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, but his principles are alive and well. Technical competence, rising standards, accountability, and autonomy, amongst others, are still instilled institutionally into the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and are vital to the continued safety and success of nuclear power at sea. The adversary in nuclear power is a predicable foe: powerful neutrons whose behavior can be described through statistical lifecycles. Achieving victory means creating an equilibrium between the complexity and might of the neuron and the system and workforce harnessing its power. To have successful and safe nuclear power at sea, there needs to be both a reactor system that has been designed for resiliency and failure from the beginning, AND a very highly skilled and competent operational workforce who can operate if the system fails. 

As I made my way from nuclear powered submarines into the Information Warfare arena, I carried the principles that I learned from the nuclear Navy with me [1].  I also discovered many of the same challenges that Admiral Rickover faced as he was trying to bring a new (and unwanted) complex capability of nuclear power to a perfectly content diesel submarine community. My challenge, however, was to bring cyber operations and security into a workforce that was content with their communications heritage. 

As my career progressed in managing digital communications in the Navy and then migrated into cybersecurity, especially as the pandemic came about, I found that our traditional communications workforce was not ready to handle the complex engineering and systems operations of the new cyber world. Their unpreparedness wasn’t from a lack of competence, but rather a generation of training on a legacy and less complicated technology system. The cyber realm is far more complicated than any nuclear reactor I have ever operated or seen; there are more changing variables, more technological evolutions, more sciences, and simply more things that could possibly go wrong. As if operating or designing a complex worldwide cyber system built on complex physics was not hard enough, the digital domain has an adversary always trying to disrupt or degrade it. This adversary adds an exponential complexity factor that no other engineering field has encountered. 

As we build a workforce and the technical infrastructure for cyber warfare, the teachings of Admiral Rickover are still valid and even more so important now than before. Not only must the cyber community build inherently resilient cyber systems, but we must also have a workforce that is expert in operating all facets of this system, just like the nuclear Navy. In addition to that, cyber also needs defenders who must manage and mitigate a sophisticated and constantly evolving adversary who is always seeking a way against the system. Unlike nuclear power, winning against a cyber adversary doesn’t simply mean matching the might of the adversary and predicting its physics. Winning in cyber means turning the tables on the adversary and overmatching their power through superior system design, operations, and defenses.

Therefore, for the complex systems of cyber operations and associated cyber warfare to be successful going forward, we must have three distinct high-quality groups in the workforce. Each group must be successful in their own right and operate as if the other two workforces have failed in their respective mission. To have three scalable workforces (architects/engineers, infrastructure operators, and cyber operators/defenders), we must start our education process as early as possible. This was also observed by Admiral Rickover and why he spent so much of his career focused on education in America. We must educate students starting from elementary age, that cyber and engineering fields are exciting career fields and grow them into successful science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students through high school, so that we can continue to grow them and capitalize on their expertise in the future. 

It doesn't matter if Microsoft, or the rest of the cyber defense industrial base, has the most capable engineers and architects in the world if the people operating the systems or defending the systems are not to the same caliber. All three workforce groups must be brilliant in their skills. Understanding systems must be the standard, above and beyond knowledge alone. Admiral Rickover’s 1959 book “Education and Freedom: A vigorous demand for higher standards in American education, the foundation of our national security” is just as important today as it was then. Not only do we need STEM skills to maintain a technically competent workforce for nuclear power, but now those same skills are in competition with cyber and other more complex engineering systems. To grow a proficient workforce going forward, we must come together as an industry and focus on upskilling the next generation. This is why Microsoft cares so much about our partnership with the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA) and why our sponsorship, the biggest in MCPA history, is so important to the company. 

Admiral Hyman G. Ricker, the father of the nuclear Navy and author of “Education and Freedom: A vigorous demand for higher standards in American education, the foundation of our national security" Image: Naval History and Heritage Command

By supporting MCPA, we not only help this community grow the workforce for cyber operations today, but now through programs like CyberSnackz, we can look to the future and grow the workforce of the next few decades. The future workforce will need all the core education they can get as their cyber challenges will be harder than ours are today. The workforce of the future will have the most sophisticated adversaries attempting to exploit the most complex and interconnected systems ever, with a growing multitude of new sciences as exploitable paths. At least in nuclear power, the sciences involved is limited to Newtonian physics, nuclear physics, chemistry, material science, and electrical sciences. In cyber, we must be aware of those same sciences as the nuclear workforce, plus quantum physics, electromagnetism, optics, artificial intelligence, and all the mathematics behind encryption and the algorithms that make cyber what it is. 

It is imperative that as a group of cyber professionals we not only raise ourselves to a higher standard but also do everything we can to prepare the next generation to have a fighting chance. This is why MCPA matters, and this is why we’re in the fight. 


[1] Many of Admiral Rickover’s teachings and triumphs over legacy thinking are articulated in Rear Admiral Dave Oliver’s book “Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy.” What is great about the focus on education from Admiral Rickover is that the progress he started didn’t end with him. Future generations of Naval nuclear propulsion leaders were empowered to continue making improvements through technical competence and quality leadership as documented in Captain David Marquet’s book “Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders.” 

About the Author

Ian Leatherman is among the first Maritime Cyber Warfare Officers in the Navy Reserve and the Zero Trust lead for Microsoft Federal.