National Guard Leaders Warn More Cyber Security Spending Needed to Help Protect Elections

Cyber-warfare training event, Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center.
Airman from the Michigan Air National Guard reviews computer information during a cyber-warfare training event, Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, Michigan, March 8, 2022. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. David Eichaker)

National Guard officials overseeing cyber security for the midterm elections warn that the service component must invest more in units dedicated to detecting and combating threats that could cripple online infrastructure.

"We're in the early days of cyber. We're in the biplane era, the early years. Funding, policy, all the infrastructure we need is missing," Maj. Gen Richard Neely, adjunct general of the Illinois National Guard, told reporters Friday. "Some of our states do an extremely great job, but we're all on a journey. Much like we need helicopters in every state, we need cyber capabilities in each state. And we need a robust structure to build around."

Illinois is one of the few states with cyber capabilities, something that's not common across the Guard's broad formations, which traditionally focus on ground combat, support units, aviation and other staples of the Global War on Terror era.

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Only 14 states will mobilize Guardsmen to help oversee cyber security for the midterm elections, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington state and West Virginia. That state active-duty mission will supplement local and federal cyber defenses, but is a very limited asset, given how little of the country will benefit. In total, only about 100 Guardsmen will be on the mission.

"Not every state is doing it. If you don't have a cyber unit in your state, chances are your state isn't in a good position to help out security in elections," said Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh, assistant adjutant general and commander of the Washington state Air National Guard. "You've got a military-grade adversary that's coming after cyber infrastructure in the U.S. Most IT is about making the walls higher. But one of the unique things here is you have a National Guard that does cyber missions against other military structures."

Despite the preparations, Guard officials and the Biden administration have said they haven’t identified any specific cyber threats to this year's elections.

"At this time, we are not aware of any specific or credible threats to compromise or disrupt election infrastructure," Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told reporters Oct. 13, according to Politico.

Instead, officials have pointed to misinformation and physical violence as the top threats to elections. Some Republican candidates have centered around lies and conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was fraudulent, a key component of the events that led to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Cyber threats -- which could come from adversarial countries including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea or even from within the U.S. itself -- are expected to be a key threat in future warfare and were a major motivating factor in the creation of the Space Force.

"If you see what's going on in the world, the homeland is no longer a sanctuary," said Col. Joed Carbonell, chief of the National Guard Bureau's cyber division.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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