Military Aims to Maintain Its Cyber Mission Force Roster

What the U.S. military is trying to achieve in building its Cyber Mission Force is akin to building an airplane – as it flies coast to coast. Even before the armed services achieve their goal of building a fully operational elite corps, they’re already putting those teams to work battling it out in cyberspace.

It’s no secret cyber talent can practically name its price in today’s job market. Last year, for example, Google – already known for its top dollar salaries – announced 20 percent pay hikes for its cyber experts.

But money it turns out, is only part of the equation.

“This is a huge challenge for the military,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Huynh, a researcher with the Army Cyber Institute at the U.S. Military Academy. “The Army stood up a task force specifically to address this issue of retention. For us it boiled down to this issue of talent management – there’s acquiring the right people, there’s developing them, deploying them and retaining them. The Army’s putting a lot of emphasis on how we crack this problem.”

To help find, manage and keep cyber talent, the military services are:

  • Creating specific cyber specialties. The Army and Air Force have carved out new cyber career fields for both its officer and enlisted troops. The Marine Corps is now in the process of creating a new Cyber Military Occupational Specialty as well. While the Navy still manages its enlisted cyber sailors from within the more traditional IT and cryptologic ratings, it has launched a Cyber Warfare Engineer specialty for officers.
  • Awarding big bonus incentives to encourage cyber reenlistments. The Marine Corps now offers some cyber specialists a $98,000 re-enlistment bonus. And the Air Force expanded its re-enlistment bonus program this year to include senior enlisted cyber troops who are nearing retirement eligibility.
  • Exploring direct commissioning programs to hire cyber experts directly into the military as officers. By treating civilian cyber professionals more like how the services treat lawyers, chaplains and doctors, the military aims to bring in as mid – or even senior – level officers at levels commensurate with their professional experience – a significant change from current practice. Army leaders expect to begin a pilot program later this year, they are the first of the services to act on congressional direction to test direct cyber accessions by 2020.

These moves are all aimed at helping U.S. Cyber Command develop its main “action arm” – the Cyber Mission Force (CMF). Modeled after elite special operations units, the CMF will comprise about 6,200 military and civilian personnel divided into 133 specialized teams in each of the four military services. These units will be to the cyber fight what Special Forces and SEAL teams are to physical combat.

Yet while the CMF is not expected to reach Full Operational Capability (FOC) until Oct. 1, 2018, many of its teams are already fully engaged in operations.

“We employ teams before they are FOC, which is comparable to employing fighter squadrons before they are fully manned or equipped,” acknowledged Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, current commander of both U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, in congressional testimony in May.

“Achieving and sustaining readiness is going to require a comprehensive set of solutions, ranging from an agreed upon readiness model between U.S. CYBERCOM and the services, to ensuring the manpower depth necessary to accommodate professional development, technical proficiency and career predictability,” Rogers said.

Filling the Replacement Stream
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Bob Wood, executive vice president of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA), said “Cybercom is doing well in manning their Cyber Mission Force elements.”

Can Contractors Help Alleviate Cyber Mission Force Skills Shortages?

Contractors can’t actually “fight” as cyber-warriors, but they can do many of the basic tasks required to keep the Cyber Mission Forces operationally ready:

  • Contractors can ensure best practices are being followed in operating and maintaining critical networks and infrastructure. Enforcing good Cyber Hygiene minimizes potential vulnerabilities and allows the CMF to focus on more difficult threats.
  • Contractors can help train the CMF.
  • Contractors can build and maintain the cyber operations ranges CMF need to perfect their skills and operations.
  • Contractors can research technologies and provide advanced capabilities CMF can use in performing their missions.
  • Contractors can provide the needed expertise and capacity to provide the all source intelligence needed to support all aspects of the Cyber domain mission.

By complementing CMF with contractors, DoD can focus uniformed personnel on their really tough problems, helping satisfy needs for both challenging their staff and advancing their skills. Contractors can also provide an alternative for transitioning military who want to stay with the mission, but can no longer commit to a military career and lifestyle. The nation benefits when those “former” cyber warriors continue to support the mission even after they take off the uniform.

Just as the services need at least two units for every one that’s forward deployed – one that’s getting ready to go and one that’s just returned – so it is with the CMF teams, Wood said.

“I do know that the pipeline, the replacement stream for the fielded forces, remains a problem,” he added. “Sustaining the force seems to be more a problem than initial manning. This is not unexpected, given the focus on rapid buildup.”

The services are well aware of the challenges.

“The gut reaction is to say that it’s all about pay, but there’s also that intangible piece that is more about service and having a real mission,” the Army Cyber Institute’s Huynh told GovTechWorks. “Putting your skills to something that is a really hard and important problem. We’ve realized that to keep the right folks, they want to be challenged. If guys are bored, they’ll want to move on to a different job.”

Air Force Maj. William Parker IV authored a white paper on Cyber Workforce Retention for the Air Force University’s Research Institute, arguing that the services must be more creative if they hope to keep their best cyber talent.

“In the current environment, shortages in all flavors of cyber experts will increase, at least in the foreseeable future,” he wrote. “Demand for all varieties of cybersecurity-skilled experts in both the private and public sectors is only rising.”

Just as civilian airlines and logistics firms vie for military pilots, private industry is eager to hire military-trained cyber professionals, Parker told GovTechWorks. “Given the skills sets they’re receiving, they’re just too marketable on the civilian side,” he said. “We wised up a little bit with our pilots when we talk about retention in the aviation community. We still have a ways to go on the cyber side. We’ve really got to be proactive.”

When the Air Force asked cyber specialists why they chose to reenlist or to leave the service for civilian opportunities, those who chose to stay cited job security, medical benefits, retirement benefits and education and training opportunities as the deciding factors.

By contrast, those who separated cited civilian job opportunities and better pay in the private sector. Several airmen said they chose to separate despite deep pride and love of serving in the Air Force because they believed their skills were not being fully utilized. Indeed, even among those who reenlisted, many cited similar concerns.

Motivated by Mission
AFCEA President and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea says mission-relevance is critical to job satisfaction.

“The thing that really motivates people is not necessarily the pay, but the mission, the training and keeping them working with up-to-date technology,” he said. Money is important – “it’s probably more important than people would like to admit,” he said. But “if we think it’s the whole solution, we’re making a mistake: You’ve got to focus on the mission,” he said. “You’ve got to make them believe what they’re doing is important.”

Just as critical is to continue to raise the bar, just as special operations forces do with physical and other training. What sets any elite force apart from the rest of the military is the high standards required to stay in, not just to get in. The question to ask, Shea said, is: “Are we keeping the people we must keep – or just the people we can keep? I just think we’re setting the bar too low.”

Worse could be a disconnect on planners’ understanding of what it takes to hone and develop cyber skills – how quickly the technology develops and how fast skills can atrophy. By not ensuring skills remain sharp, the CMF risks losing the technological edge its designers have worked so hard to create.

‘A Hollow Cyber Force’

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited statistics suggesting the country is “headed down the path to a hollow cyber force.”

Out of 127 Air Force cyber officers that completed their first tour on the CMF, McCain said, not one went back to a cyber-related job.

“That is unacceptable and suggests a troubling lack of focus,” he warned. “It should be obvious that the development of a steady pipeline of new talent and the retention of the ones we’ve trained already is essential to the success of the Cyber Mission Force.”

Maj. Gen. Christopher Weggeman, commander of the 24th Air Force and of Air Forces Cyber (AFCYBER), said that McCain’s concern “gets to a really, really important problem.”

The Air Force, he said, must improve in terms of how it manages the force and balances the requirements of the CMF against “the broader enterprise needs of our services for a cyber IT workforce.”

This cuts to the heart of the problem: The Air Force is still adjusting to its IT specialists, long seen as back-office support for front-line warriors, as something more. Indeed, the most advanced cyber specialists are more like Air Force fighter and bomber pilots than the support staff from which they emerged: They too are war fighters.

Yet the services still wrestle with how to balance their internal needs for creating basic IT service talent with combatant commanders’ needs for skilled cyber warriors. The existing training pipeline was built for the former; but the latter group needs “to go to advanced cyber schools, like the Cyber Network Operations Defense program at NSA and also our Cyber Weapons Instructor Course,” Weggemen said. As with pilots and other skills in high demand or short supply, retaining and enhancing cyber talent requires a more flexible approach than the institutional one the military typically takes when it comes to managing manpower. When there’s no shortage of similarly skilled service members, the risk of losing one good staff sergeant is minimal. But that changes when skills are in short supply.

Consider the story Huynh tells about his Cyber Protection Team experience. This team was one of the CMF units charged with defending networks from attack and one of Huynh’s best operators on the team was a staff sergeant who loved both his job and serving in the Army.

“He was awesome, absolutely amazing,” he said. But when it came time for the soldier to reenlist, family reasons compelled him to ask that he not be assigned to a new duty station.  “For some reason, the Army couldn’t make it work and we couldn’t get that in writing when it was time to reenlist,” Huynh recalled. “So because of that uncertainty, he got out.”

Not long after, the former staff sergeant was hired back into government as a GS-13, the civilian equivalent of a major, a significant promotion in terms of responsibility, if not necessarily pay.

Similar scenarios play out regularly in all the services.

“The agility that we need to retain these very, very talented people, we have to think of new ways to do that,” Marine Maj. Gen. Loretta Reynolds, commander of Marine Forces Cyber Command, told congressional leaders in May. “It’s very difficult to compete with industry on this. We give them the best training. We give them Top Secret clearances. And importantly, we give them phenomenal experience.”

Reynolds said she needs more flexibility to directly hire Marines getting out of the service rather than meeting existing requirements to allow open competition for every job. It’s not that she objects to competition, but rather that it simply takes longer. Job seekers can’t afford to wait months or even weeks in a competitive job market.

“In the Department of the Navy, I’ve got to compete – I have to open up a job before I can direct hire somebody that I know already has the clearance, already has the skill set, already has the experience.”


  1. Wayne

    CTNs are doing the same work as the Cyber Warfare Engineer (CWE) now.

  2. Joe Faraone

    With the paucity of trained cyber personnel both inside the Government and outside, Government and Industry needs to pursue all avenues to attract, develop, and train the talent the country needs to field an exceptional cyber workforce.

  3. JBH

    3 of my suggestions:

    First, hold leaders accountable at all levels to ensure a return on investment; if an O-5 has a cyber operator in their formation who isn’t actually serving actively in a mission (e.g., serving a support role in Operations and Planning, or works in the Arms room), then that choice to get 0% ROI needs to reflect on their annual evaluation, and make them less competitive among their peers for promotion and assignments.

    Second, Cyber operations need to be designated as “Special” so that each branch’s conventionally-oriented human resource command has no control over tracking or assigning them; by extension, cyber units need to be fenced in, regardless of time on station, time in grade, or Additional Skill Identifier-producing schools.

    Third, the career model currently forced on every service member is designed to produce a well-rounded general manager, which stands in stark contrast to the personality type and motivator of most cyber operators. If the military gave up on the “Up or Out” model of career progression, and eschewed a one-size-fits-all approach to what a promotion candidate’s assignment history should look like, then the military just might retain enough skilled cyber professionals long-term.


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