DETROIT, Mich. -- The civilian-acquired skills of its members enable the National Guard to make unique contributions in the cyber realm, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel said here today.

Guard members work in the technology sector in their civilian capacity and can be found in companies ranging from startups to Google and Microsoft, the chief of the National Guard Bureau told audience members at the North American International Cyber Summit 2016.

Those civilian-acquired skills give Guard members a unique ability to contribute in their military roles. And it's a two-way street, Lengyel said: "We provide employers the military training and experience our Guardsmen take back to their civilian positions."

The National Guard is not a new arrival in cyberspace: Fear that coding issues would cause problems after Dec. 31, 1999 -- popularly known as the Y2K or millennium bug -- prompted the formation of what are now called defensive cyberspace operations elements in each of the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia, where the National Guard operates.

Networked technology has created tremendous freedom and opportunity, Lengyel said. "As with anything that is open and free, it presents some real vulnerabilities to those that would exploit them," he said. "The cyber domain also presents us with some of our greatest challenges from a security perspective."

Challenges include protecting critical infrastructure, maintaining the freedom and agility of networked technology in spite of threats, defending Defense Department networks, defending the homeland against cyber threats and providing secure integrated cyber capabilities for military operations.

"We have to build close relationships, partnerships and bridges with the rest of society when it comes to cyber," Lengyel said.

The summit where he spoke reflected those types of partnerships: Hosted by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, it is a collaborative effort with the National Governors Association, the Department of Homeland Security, private industry, educators, students and local partners that started in 2011.

"We are experts at building enduring partnerships on all levels -- international, federal, state and local," Lengyel said of the National Guard.

National Guard contributions include working closely with the combatant commands, especially Cyber Command, to fight off cyber incidents. Forty cyber units in 29 states support National Guard and Cyber Command missions -- a number scheduled to grow through 2019.

Two National Guard units are currently on military duty augmenting the active force in the cyber domain, just as Guard members contribute every day in more traditional domains.

"We are active in nearly every facet of cyberspace operations," Lengyel said. "And we practice our capabilities routinely at all levels."

In his remarks, Lengyel noted recent cyber exercises in the states and with overseas partners, as well as Cyber Guard, a Cyber Command-hosted national exercise that simulates a domestic cyber incident with catastrophic disruption, bringing Guard members together to train with industry partners, active-component troops and federal agencies.

Noting that 10,000 National Guard members recently contributed to the response to Hurricane Matthew, Lengyel said, "Just as the National Guard is ready to respond to major hurricanes, we now have contingency plans for major cyber incidents."

"The more our world and society connects via the net, the more we are vulnerable," Lengyel continued. "Cyber warfare is a battle space that will only get more challenging. It's a battle space available to all -- both state and non-state actors. … Staying one step ahead requires cooperation and teamwork."

Success will require effective public-private and international partnerships, Lengyel said.

"I challenge each of you to think and communicate how we can develop a culture of innovation to secure against those who wish to do us harm," he said. "We simply can't do it without your help."