* France wants 3,200 cyber soldiers by 2019
* Fears major attacks on infrastructure
* Annual exercise aims to unearth special talents
By Marine Pennetier
CESSON-SAVIGNE, France, April 5 Huddled around
their computers, two dozen French 20-somethings have been typing
away feverishly for seven hours. Their objective is clear.
Eliminate a virus crippling the systems of a government
"Mission accomplished! They have done what they were asked
to do. Analyse, identify and then develop a code that wipes it
out," says Patrice, a French military officer testing potential
recruits at a cyber defence centre in western France.
The exercise was one of dozens held across the country
between March 20 and 31, involving 240 people from 12 elite
technology colleges, part of a plan to create an army of
talented cyber spies to counter digital destabilisation efforts.
Officials want them to be ready to face cyberwarfare that
could target civil infrastructure such as water, electricity,
telecommunications and transport.
They will also be expected to protect French democracy
itself, amid allegations that Russia interfered in the U.S.
presidential election last year.
Cyber defence has become one of France's national security
priorities as states like Russia, China and Iran, criminal
groups and even some allies sharpen their own digital abilities.
"The threats will grow. The frequency and sophistication of
attacks is increasing without respite," Defence Minister
Jean-Yves Le Drian said in December after unveiling the army's
new cyber operational command.
"The next challenge in cyber defence will not just be
detecting the attacks, but to continue our military operations
amid a cyber attack, while using cyberspace to launch our own
The "fourth army", as it has now been labelled, will see an
initial billion euros invested up to 2019. The objective is to
have 3,200 digital soldiers in place by then, from just 100 six
Another 4,400 reservists will be waiting in the wings if
At Cesson-Savigne, a centre for French cyber defence
excellence, the twenty budding digital soldiers know this could
be the opportunity to defend their country.
They are put through intense workouts on tasks ranging from
tackling basic infiltration efforts via system compromise to
full loss of control of the network.
"It really is the opportunity to spot the golden nuggets,"
said Eric, a colonel who heads the operations pole of the army's
cyber defence command centre.
In line with French military rules, officers are not allowed
to give their family names.
The annual exercise, which has been running since 2013, has
so far enabled France to recruit 35 percent of the reservists it
More and more students are also seeking full-time posts,
with starting salaries of 3,000 euros ($3,195) a month.
"The profile we're after is someone young who enjoys
rummaging around a little and is extremely curious in the
digital world," said Stephane, a commander who heads up a cyber
unit that trains about 1,000 people each year.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there is concern that the
U.S. National Security Agency risks a brain-drain of hackers and
cyber spies due to tumultuous reorganisation and worries about
the acrimonious relationship between the intelligence community
and President Donald Trump.
Cybersecurity executives in the United States told Reuters
they had witnessed a marked increase in the number of U.S.
intelligence officers and government contractors seeking
employment in the private sector since Trump took office on Jan.
Among the French potential recruits was David, an
engineering graduate who at 30 is too old to join the army. He
said signing up to do his bit for his country was a no-brainer.
"In the future, we'll see more and more cyber attacks
instead of terrestrial ones. The army will need ground troops,
but they will also need people like us for the logistics and the
technological side so we'll be there to help them carry out
their mission," he said.
(Writing by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche)