Traditionally, militaries have fought in four arenas: air, land, sea and space. But as the damage wreaked by computer hackers expands from breaching retail security systems to penetrating national security computer networks, a fifth—and perhaps even more nefarious—battlefield has emerged: cyberspace.
As cyberthreats increase, so do the number of students choosing to protect their nation on the cyberspace front. Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service is proving to be the ideal training ground for these students. Since its founding in 1997, the Bush School’s faculty mixture of top-tier academics and real-world practitioners have prepared graduate students for careers in public administration, public service and international affairs. This includes grooming students for careers in national security.
Dr. Andrew L. Ross, professor of international affairs, points to the increasing demand for cybersecurity experts in the intelligence field. “Everything associated with the Internet—including the billions of devices connected to it—has come to be considered a new domain of warfare: cyberspace,” he explained.
One of the Bush School’s most recent cybersecurity graduates is 28-year-old Emily Otto ’17. Formerly an Army sergeant, Cadet Otto put her military active duty career on hold to pursue a Master of International Affairs degree and an Army commission. In May, she completed the program with minimal debt, thanks to financial support from the Army and from an endowed fellowship established through the Texas A&M Foundation by Patricia and Terry Finkbiner ’65. While completing a cybersecurity concentration, Otto was selected for a cyber operations officer position in the Army’s cyber branch. While she is certainly not the only Bush School student to pursue a cybersecurity career, she is the first cyber officer to commission directly from Texas A&M’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
As the military, the government and private companies scramble to confront rapidly increasing cyberthreats, graduates like Otto are in high demand. By supporting Bush School students, Foundation donors like the Finkbiners are giving them the educational and analytical tools they need to enter the world and make it a better, safer place.
While the concept of cybersecurity might be relatively unfamiliar to the public, it’s well-known to Bush School international affairs faculty members, many of whom come from intelligence, international security and homeland security backgrounds. Ross’ teaching and research interests, for instance, have long focused on security issues. Since the early 1990s, he’s collaborated on projects with Dr. Emily Goldman, who is now the director of the Combined Action Group of United States Cyber Command (CYBERCOM).
Created in 2009 as a component of U.S. Strategic Command, CYBERCOM is charged with defending the Department of Defense Information Network against cyberspace threats, providing cyber support for U.S. military missions, and strengthening the nation’s ability to guard against and respond to cyberattacks. In addition, each of the military branches has its own cyber command component that oversees multiple “cyber forces.” The result is a growing network of cyber operation units linked not only to allied military partners, but also to industry, academia, and state and local governments.
This is where Ross comes in. As a Bush School international affairs professor, Ross annually leads a student capstone—a team-based, applied research project required for all second-year students. During this intense, in-depth, semester-long endeavor, students work on behalf of a real-world client to research, analyze and—if requested—provide recommendations for an issue impacting the client. The experience culminates in a formal written report and briefing. Capstone projects encourage students to think independently, frame and analyze issues, and apply their academic knowledge and skills, preparing them for post-graduation careers.
For this year’s capstone project, Ross’ team of eight Bush School students scoped out the future of the cyber domain and generated three distinct futures for CYBERCOM’S Combined Action Group. Applying established international relations theories, the overarching mission of the project was to look 10 to 15 years into the future and theorize possible cyberspace-related changes. In doing so, the students considered such concepts as security, privacy, technological innovations, growth in Internet users, geopolitical issues, non-state actors, increased system vulnerabilities, continued cybercrime, and cyberspace as a war-fighting domain, among others.
But while the students were tasked with developing a set of scenarios, Ross stressed that they were not in the business of fortune-telling. “We were not trying to predict what the cyber future will look like,” he explained. “Instead, we were looking at possible alternatives.”
According to Ross, the goal of the project was not to establish which scenario was the most credible, but to help national security and defense planners think more creatively about the future. The students’ findings, he said, should encourage these planners to consider the challenges that confront the United States and to contemplate opportunities to shape the evolving cyber order.
Otto and classmate Gordon Bostick ’17 served as team leads for the capstone project. For Otto, understanding the ways in which events in cyberspace can impact geopolitics was especially eye-opening. Equally as compelling, she said, was considering the different paths the United Sates could take to guide the world toward a desired future.
“This research gave me a baseline understanding of how tactical actions in cyberspace can create repercussions for U.S. national strategy,” she explained. “It put into context how the technical side and the policy side interact to shape future expectations and actions of states in cyberspace.”
Otto traveled a long, winding road to end up on Ross’ capstone team. Originally an art history major at the University of Louisville, she was captivated by a military history elective and decided to give up her painting aspirations to instead work at a military museum. She added a major in history, interned at a museum in Fort Knox, and set a goal to obtain her graduate degree from Texas A&M, renowned for its military history curriculum. Finances got in the way, however, and two years after graduating from Louisville, she enlisted in the Army.
Otto was stationed at Fort Hood and trained as a human intelligence collector. Before deploying to Afghanistan, she spoke with members of Texas A&M’s ROTC staff about her plans to study military history. After considering Otto’s military training in intelligence, they instead recommended the Bush School.
Otto took their advice, looked into the international affairs program, and was immediately hooked. “It felt like the right place to be,” she recalled.
After returning from Afghanistan, Otto finally found the resources to attend graduate school, thanks to Army financial support and the Patricia and Terry Finkbiner ’65 Endowed Fellowship. She temporarily separated from the Army under a Green to Gold contract and began her Bush School studies with the goal of returning to Army Intelligence. But like her undergraduate military history experience, a week-long seminar on cybersecurity in Ross’ National Security and Defense Planning class profoundly impacted her trajectory.
“Through the course of the week’s readings and seminars, I realized how radically the world is changing,” she said. “I wanted to be part of that change and be part of building our national cybersecurity infrastructure.”
From that point on, Otto focused on cybersecurity, which included the CYBERCOM capstone project. Now, as a Bush School graduate and an Army cyber operations officer, she’ll conduct defensive and offensive cyber operations.
“Since I don’t come from a technical background, my hope is that I can fill a gap by translating between the technical and policymaking sides,” she said. “I want to help ensure that cyberspace remains an open domain that promotes America’s ideals and national interests.”