9 May 2016

Essay contest (19): The military needs a more innovative cyber force structure

May 5, 2016 

George S. Patton called the M1 Garand the “greatest battle implement ever devised.” That was World War II, when bad guys wore uniforms and the battlefield was a physical space.

A contemporary analysis of battle implements may conclude that the keyboard is the M1 Garand of the 21st century. In our interconnected world, the sound of keystrokes is more devastating than machine gun fire.

A cyberwarrior is more difficult to train than a WWII rifleman, however. They require more than range time and physical training to hone their skills, and the Department of Defense needs to figure out how to attract and retain the top talent it needs to maintain the edge in cyberspace.

The Pentagon is working to grow its presence in Silicon Valley by opening its Defense Innovation Unit — Experimental (DIUx) in hopes of attracting tech companies to work on defense projects. It’s been a tough sell to a difficult audience, and it’s unclear how much impact the office will really have. It is a good sign, however, that the Pentagon is working to find innovative solutions to the defense issues of the present and future.

However innovative those solutions are, though, the military needs to beware of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Without the talent needed to keep those solutions up and running the military could find itself with 21st century technology but 20th century personnel.

The military is up against stiff competition for the limited cyber talent that is on the market. Companies in the private sector can pay six figure salaries — sometimes to entry-level candidates, if they have advanced degrees — and offer impressive benefits, not to mention the autonomy that comes with big salaries and telecommuting. Though Silicon Valley’s heyday may be waning, the precedent has been set, and the trend has even extended into mundane industries like retail stores. The military will need to double down on what Charles Moskos and Frank Wood called the “institutional” incentives of military careers to attract individuals motivated by public service.

The service branches need to beware of allowing tradition and antiquated ways of thinking about human resources practices guide their path forward. The individuals needed with the skills necessary to best fight a cyberwar will not have resumes that look like the typical recruit. The Pentagon will need to figure out how to integrate these types of people into the existing force structure, and be fluid enough in their approach to alter standing practices in order to incorporate changes in the new battlespace. For instance, fitness standards for the cyber force will need to be critically examined, and lower standards should not be written off.

James Stavridis’ hopes for a 6th cyber-branch of the military seem to have been quashed by the service chiefs, but innovative approaches to force structure are needed now more than ever. The Army still maintains the hierarchy of officer — warrant officer — enlisted for its cyber force. Using the current methodology, what rank do you assign someone with a master’s in computer science that doesn’t occupy a leadership role, but is still commensurate for the role they play? Furthermore, should every “Cyber-Marine” truly be a rifleman, or is this an out of date adage that shouldn’t apply to cyberwarriors? Traditions will need to be dislodged from the psyche of the service branches in order to best structure an effective cyber force.

The Pentagon will also need to tackle the issue of civilian contractors in the cyber force. Civilian contractors are now being cleared by the Air Force to fly drone reconnaissance missions, bringing them one step closer to the business end of drone strikes. As the definition of cyberwarfare continues to change it needs to be clear what role contractors will play when operations go kinetic. The legal ramifications are huge and must be thoroughly examined, as contractors are likely to remain a large part of the cyber force for years to come.

People are inherently low-tech. They have a hierarchy of needs, all of which the military is more than capable of providing for. By catering to those who are motivated by public service and a sense of national duty, and offering competitive compensation and benefits, the military can build a formidable cyber force that not only maintains a distinctive edge over adversaries, but also serves as a bedrock for growth of the next generation of American leadership in the technology-driven global economy.

Blake Baiers is an assistant editor at RealClearDefense, and previously worked in “big data’” recruiting. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Loyola University Chicago. The views in this essay are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of RealClearDefense.

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