Cyber Defense Review

Recruiting Cyber Warriors: Let’s Not Rush to Failure

By LTC Paul Maxwell | July 02, 2015

I have sat through many briefings and discussions on how the Army is short of Cyber warriors and how it will take extraordinary incentives and methods to fill the ranks. There are committees studying this issue and lots of discussion occurring. All of it is well intentioned and motivated by the perception of being behind schedule. However, I think some tactical patience is required and a pause taken to think critically about this issue before we make hasty decisions we may regret.

One way to view the problem is to break it into two issues. The first issue is filling the cyber force quickly to get Soldiers and civilians into the current fight. The second issue is the long term recruiting and retention of cyber warriors. The first problem is immediate and no amount of theorizing and planning will make it go away more rapidly. Personnel will be thrust into the gap and hastily trained using adhoc methods yet the line will hold until the cavalry arrives. The second problem is no less difficult but has longer lasting impact and therefore requires more study and detailed analysis. To use a maneuver analogy, waiting for the smoke screen to build before charging into the breach is almost always a prudent choice.

A central point made by many in the recruiting/retention discussion regarding the second issue is that there are not enough Soldiers and civilians in the Army with the requisite training and knowledge to fill the force. This point is then used to justify the use of extreme recruiting methods such as lowering physical standards and modifying appearance regulations. Though the point about personnel shortages is valid, it ignores the fact that it is simply a result of the Army not dedicating resources to build this type of warrior prior to now. We are expecting a chicken when no egg has been laid! Those proposing modifying the standards are making an assumption that the Army is not capable of building the recruiting and training pipeline necessary to maintain the cyber force. That seems unlikely given that we are the most well-resourced military in the world. Targeted advertising and recruiting is likely to find the 3000+ cyber warriors the Army requires. Certainly there will be a lag between inception and full operational capability, but isn’t maintaining a well-disciplined, fit fighting force worth that wait? If we accept a lower standard, how will that be dealt with when promotion boards or SERBs/RIFs occur? Are those falling under the Army’s traditional standards not going to be at risk? For certain, they will not be competitive in the general Army population. So, do we mean to place Cyber warriors completely in their own categories for all personnel matters? It seems clear to me that having lower standards will not in the long run help the professional advancement of our Cyber force when competing for Army leadership positions.

Another recurring theme by some trying to solve this issue is that this is a new problem. It is implied that nothing like this has happened before and there are no models we can learn from to help solve this problem. I suggest that this is not the case. Cyber warfare requires intelligent, well-trained Soldiers and civilians. I would argue that other portions of our military have a similar challenge and have solved it a long time ago. Career fields such as doctors, lawyers, chaplains, and pilots all require a specialized knowledge base that is well above the Army average. They each have managed to develop a recruiting and retention model that meets the Army’s needs. I believe that Cyber can adopt a model that borrows from their example. We do not need to invent something new.

The professional career fields mentioned previously offer us some insights into how we may proceed. They have different training and accession models for their personnel. The floor for the lower ranks of the careers is different, for example, warrants are the lowest ranked aviators. Maybe Cyber Soldiers will look similar to aviators. A common worry in the fledging cyber force is retaining talent. Those discussing it worry that we will lose the “good” talent to the commercial sector. That will be true in some cases. The medical, legal, and aviation fields have ways to retain their Soldiers who face the same brain drain that is predicted for the Cyber branch. They offer programs such as professional pay and training opportunities to mitigate the losses. Admittedly, some of the best will be lost despite our best efforts. Keeping all of the best should not be our goal. This thinking presupposes that a “good” Cyber unit leader needs to be among the best at the technical level. That is not always the case. The best technician is not necessarily the best leader. Is it required that the best pilot become the Aviation brigade commander? If so, our aviation units would not be the dominating force that they are currently. We should avoid falling into a pattern of thinking that everyone in Cyber needs to be the best in the domain.
In the end, some reflection and deep thinking is needed. This isn’t a new problem and there are examples that we can borrow from to help solve the challenge. Cyber can also help itself by not alienating the rest of the Army. The constant refrain is that cyber is “special.” Self-designating in this manner only results in others developing a negative view of our force. I believe that we will be best served by not being “special” but instead merely being “different.” Being a part of the team means not being separate from the rest.