By Grégoire Winston ’26, Editor-In-Chief
On Tuesday Feb. 6 2024, retired Admiral Michelle Howard held a cyber and national security talk in the Science Center auditorium. Thanks to the collaboration of Common Ground, the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and the Department of Computer Science, Howard led an hour-long discussion focused on the past of cyber security, our present regarding today’s geopolitical context and the future of American national security.
Howard shared both her personal experiences and insights with regards to cyber security, notably thanks to her decades-long career serving in the U.S. Navy. After 35 years of service, Howard retired from the U.S. Navy, in which she rose to the ranks of four-star admiral in 2014. Among her accomplishments, she was the first Black woman to command a U.S. Navy combatant ship in 1999, playing a critical role in helping Estonia build the framework for the country’s first National Cybersecurity Strategy Plan in 2007 and became commander of naval forces in Europe and Africa in 2016. In 2021, she was nominated to the Naming Commission, a congressional commission created in order to rename U.S. military locations with direct ties to Confederate figures. Following her retirement from the Navy, Howard taught a novel course on cybersecurity and international diplomacy at George Washington University
Growing up, Howard remembers watching a documentary for the service academy, which cemented her aspirations of becoming an officer of the Navy. Despite the legal restrictions women faced with enlisting in the Navy at that time, Howard applied for the position and remarks being grateful to her mother for persevering in the application process. “I am glad I listened to my mother. She told me, ‘if you’re old enough to apply and you get rejected, we will sue the government. If this is what you want to do and you think it’s right, we will sue, but keep going after it. Thanks to you, other women will get the chance to go later on and that’s just as important.’” Up to this day, Howard sees this personal experience as an important life lesson: “You don’t do what’s right because of self benefit, you do what’s right because it serves the community.”
Among Howard’s most influential experiences while serving, the missions she and her sailors have accomplished have been significant motivators. She recalls the 2009 rescue of Captain Phillips from the hands of Somali pirates as particularly memorable, thanks to “the innovative talent of the sons and daughters of America that led to success. Despite their young age, the operational forces in charge of that hostage mission were phenomenal.”
During her presentation, Howard touched on the creation of her course at George Washington University, which focuses on diplomacy from the perspective of cybersecurity. The class would enable students to “think about how countries are maneuvering each other, in today’s world where time and space meet in the fourth dimension.” She further emphasized the need for a new generation of leaders who can understand the ever-evolving world of national security. “Today’s biggest challenge is getting enough national security and diplomacy experts. Our challenge is that we don’t understand we are in the fourth dimension. We need to start interacting with the next generation of state department leaders to bring good and energetic thought to what is a difficult concept to crack down.
Among the topics covered, Howard spent time revisiting several critical moments in the history of the cyberworld while assessing the future of global diplomacy. The Stuxnet attack on Iran and Estonia’s 2007 Internet crash were two of the most influential snapshots in time that tested the limitations of the cyberworld. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” Howard stated. However, the impact of Stuxnet on future cyberattacks is certain: “the problem with Stuxnet is the blueprint we left, it has become the basis for the majority of complex malware worms worldwide. It has been used by North Korea and other countries for undeniable harm.” When looking into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Howard believes “China has benefited the most from the conflict. By observing the world’s reaction to the war, they have realized that if they are planning on a coercive takeover of Taiwan, they are going in with everything and will control Taiwan before the international order can react.”
In concluding her talk, Howard discussed what characteristics a true leader should hold. As a teacher and retired Navy Admiral, being truthful and a mentor are foundational. “Teaching is all about being a role model, being an inspiration. In the Navy, explaining the vulnerabilities to your sailors who are high school graduates is important. If I shared my personal experience in a way that they can understand, it went a long way in drawing success out of them.”
On Wednesday Feb. 7 2024, retired Admiral Howard, alongside four other members of The Naming Commission, discussed bipartisan approaches they use to accomplish their tasks during “Remove, Modify, or Replace: Working Across The Aisle To Confront Confederate Commemorations in The Military.” The event was made possible thanks to Common Ground