The government's urgent push into cyberwarfare has set off a rush among the biggest military companies for billions of dollars in new defense contracts.
The exotic nature of the work, coupled with the recession, is enabling the companies to attract top young talent that once would have gone to Silicon Valley. And the race to develop weapons that defend against, or initiate, computer attacks has given rise to thousands of “hacker soldiers” within the Pentagon who can blend the new capabilities into the nation's war planning.
Nearly all of the companies with the largest military contracts – including Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon – have major computer-related contracts with the military and intelligence agencies.
The companies have been moving quickly to lock up the relatively small number of experts with the training and creativity to block the attacks and design countermeasures. They have been buying smaller firms, financing academic research and running advertisements for “cyberninjas” at a time when other industries are shedding workers.
The changes are manifesting themselves in highly classified laboratories, where computer geeks in their 20s like to joke that they are hackers with security clearances.
At a Raytheon facility south of the Kennedy Space Center, rock music blares and empty cans of Mountain Dew pile up as engineers create tools to protect the Pentagon's computers and crack into the networks of countries that could become adversaries. Prizes like cappuccino machines and stacks of cash spur them on, and a gong heralds each major breakthrough.
The young engineers represent the new face of a war that President Obama described Friday as “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.” The president plans a senior White House official to oversee the nation's cybersecurity strategies.
Computer experts say the government is behind the curve in sealing off its networks from threats that are growing more persistent and sophisticated, with thousands of intrusions each day from organized criminals and legions of hackers for nations including Russia and China.
“Everybody's attacking everybody,” said Scott Chase, a 30-year-old computer engineer who helps run the Florida Raytheon unit.
Chase and Terry Gillette, a 53-year-old former rocket engineer, ran SI Government Solutions before selling the company to Raytheon last year as the boom in the military's cyber operations accelerated.
The operation – tucked into several unmarked buildings behind an insurance office and a dentist's office – is doing some of the most cutting-edge work, both in identifying weaknesses in Pentagon networks and in creating weapons for potential attacks.