Department of Defense (DoD) and private sector leaders gathered to discuss the state of cybersecurity in the U.S. military during a Tuesday Federal Executive Forum webinar.

Military leaders universally praised the DoD’s work in setting a cyber baseline and its recent progress and achievements. Though, they did agree that the Department has a ways to go.

“We’ve done some good foundational work in getting some baseline cyber hygiene in place,” Donald Heckman, principal director for cybersecurity at DoD. “What we’re looking to do now is go to the next step and really looking at some advanced capabilities.”

Brigadier General Jennifer Buckner, director of cyber for U.S. Army, praised the collaboration within the Department. “We are really seeing some unprecedented cooperation and sharing across the Department of Defense and the services.”

Both Buckner and Heckman also discussed the importance of strengthening the cyber workforce and said the military is laser-focused on this goal.

“Cyber talent remains the number one priority for all of us,” Buckner said. She stressed the military is “changing the way we do business” and is looking to bring on both civilians and armed service members to its cyber team.

“One of our key things is our cyber accepted workforce,” Heckman said, noting that the cyber accepted workforce enables the DoD to “attract and retain a high-quality workforce to help us with our cyber challenges.”

The panel then turned to the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to the future of cybersecurity. Across the board, the panelists, from Rear Admiral Danelle Barrett, director of the U.S. Navy’s cybersecurity division, to Ralph Kahn, VP of Federal at Tanium, stressed that cybersecurity in the future will require embracing new technologies.

John Davis, VP and chief security officer for Palo Alto Networks Public Sector, said that when it comes to cyber, “we’ve been bringing a knife to a gunfight” and instead we need to “bring software to a software fight.”

Aubrey Merchant-Dest, chief technology officer of Symantec Federal, said the cybersecurity giant has been “spending a lot of dollars” on machine learning and AI and has been applying it to a variety of interfaces. “When we look at the challenge we face it’s a question of helping the cyber network defender figure out where to hunt,” he said. Merchant-Dest stressed that cybersecurity is not a simple problem and it won’t have a simple–or singular–solution. “We need to look at this as a many-dimensional challenge,” he said. He added that those tasked with cyber need to understand how people are accessing their network, whether there are cyber vulnerabilities with the devices being used, what data is being accessed, among many other variables.

The DoD and military branches are embracing help from the private sector, Buckner explained. She said that she wants to take advantage of what is successful in the private sector because it frees up her team to focus heavily on situations that are unique to the Army’s mission. By utilizing tested best practices, Buckner concluded that the DoD has more resources to focus on its unique and most difficult challenges.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.