Bremerton, just across the Puget Sound from Seattle, is a military town. On the ferry ride over, you can sometimes see aircraft carriers and submarines. But there’s another kind of defense industry set to grow in and around Bremerton, too. An industry that defends us against cyber warfare, and it benefits from the area’s military expertise.
I'll show you the beginning of that growing industry in a minute. But to explain why that industry could thrive in Bremerton, we'll make a quick stop at a park right by the ferry dock in Bremerton, where a submarine fin (called the "sail") towers about 18 feet above a couple of cafe tables.
“This is the top of the submarine. It would be attached to the round part of the submarine. And they took this off and planted it in this park,” explained Captain Alan Schrader, commander of the Kitsap Naval Base.
That black sail brings back memories of Schrader's early career, which he spent crammed into submarines. “One of my favorite memories is, going out, parking in some part of the ocean with a lot warmer water than it is here ..." The submariners would climb up on top of the tall black sail and jump into the tropical water.
Schrader says this submarine, called the U.S.S. Parche, has done some incredible things. It has more awards than any other ship or submarine in U.S. history. It’s covered with stickers called "Presidential Unit Citations" that celebrate its achievements. But what this submarine actually did is classified.
I'd heard that it was, but I played dumb and asked anyway, "Wait, what did this submarine do during the Cold War?”
“I can’t tell you," said Schrader. "There’s a very famous line from Top Gun, it says ‘I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.’ But honestly, I can’t even tell you. Because I’m not allowed."
"It did a lot of very secret missions," he told me. "To be quite honest, if you go and talk to anyone who’s served on board the Parche, they’re very proud of what they did and they can’t tell you a thing about it.”
There are books about this submarine. One of them suggests the Parche tapped Soviet military communication cables at the bottom of the sea.
In other words, it hacked the Russians.
Schrader wouldn’t confirm any of that. “Well, the submarine force is called the silent service. It’s not because we’re operating submarines that are very quiet. It’s because we silently go out and perform these missions and don’t talk to people like you about it.”
Bremerton is full of people like Schrader. Military people and ex-military people. People who can follow a mission, and who know when to keep their mouth shut.
It’s a highly skilled, but some would say, underutilized workforce. Which brings us to Mike Hamilton, who founded his cyber security company, Critical Informatics, in downtown Bremerton.
Hamilton says when navy personnel are ready to leave the service, many of them look for a jobs that would keep them in Bremerton. There's a steady flow of potential employees, but not many companies have picked up on that yet. “If we had located our business in Seattle, we would be having a fist fight with Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Expedia, etc., etc., for resources," said Hamilton, "and instead, we get the pick of the litter.”
Bremerton could be on the brink of massive change, as homes cost far less there than in Seattle and a fast ferry will bring the two cities closer together in July. KUOW's Region of Boom team will report from Bremerton all month.
Hamilton leads me into a secure room he calls the Security Operations Center, or SOC. “Okay, so guys, this is Josh from KUOW. These are the guys.”
"Hey," the guys say. We don’t get to learn the guys’ names, Hamilton told me, because that could make them targets for espionage.
These workers monitor threats to businesses and public infrastructure, including clients like maritime ports, local government, regional hospitals and banks. They look for evidence of hackers, hackers sponsored by criminal syndicates or hostile countries that want to destabilize countries like the United States.
The stakes are high for our region, where we rely on the operation of ports and hydroelectric dams to keep our economy running smoothly.
There's no shortage of cautionary tales around the world, says Hamilton. “Russians took over a dam in New York. They had the ability to open that dam. They did not do that. There was a steel mill in Germany that blew up for unknown reasons.” Does he think that was because of cyber warfare? "Oh yeah, it’s widely accepted now that that’s exactly what that was.”
Locating cyber businesses on the Kitsap Peninsula could become a trend, with Western Washington University set to open a cyber warfare training facility just down the street in Poulsbo later this year.
Hamilton says it's not a moment too soon, as hackers are already camped out in our utility grid, waiting, “so that at the time of their choosing they can cause disruption, mayhem, chaos.”
To catch them, you have to dive deep into the network, and watch and listen. Kind of like the U.S.S. Parche may have done, down at the bottom of the ocean.
That kind of intelligence gathering plays a growing role in the nation’s defense. Bremerton is ready to accept the mission.