Military Battles to Man its Developing Cyber Force

Besieged by constant cyberattacks, the U.S. Defense Department is scrambling to assemble 133 Cyber Mission Force teams to defend military networks, protect critical U.S. infrastructure, and strike back in cyberspace when necessary.

But two years into the effort, the military is barely halfway to its goal of 6,244 cyber troops, and senior military cyber leaders already worry that they will have a hard time retaining cyber specialists as demand – and salaries – increase in the civilian sector.

Already the hiring pace is slowing. Originally, the 133 cyber teams were to be in place by the end of 2016. Now, says Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, “the cyber mission force will be fully manned, trained, and equipped by fiscal year 2018.”

Identifying, training, and qualifying troops to do this kind of high-end computer work is proving more challenging than anticipated. Adm. Michael Rogers, chief of the U.S. Cyber Command, aired his frustrations at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing this spring. “I have been working with the services to accelerate the work we are doing to keep on schedule, but I can promise you that will not be easy,” he said. “We are already hard pressed to find qualified personnel, get them cleared and trained.”

Chart: How The Military Is Manning its Cyber Force

Delays in receiving security clearances are a problem, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Daniel O’Donohue told the House subcommittee. “These personnel often wait months at the command prior to starting work due to long wait times for [security] clearance,” he said.

Meanwhile, defense networks are living under a continuous cyber siege. “External actors probe and scan Defense Department networks for vulnerabilities millions of times each day,” said Eric Rosenbach, the principal cyber advisor to the secretary of defense, testifying in April before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. “Over one hundred foreign intelligence agencies continually attempt to infiltrate DoD networks. Unfortunately, some incursions – by both state and non-state entities – have succeeded.”

Army Strong

To fight back, the Army is contributing a force of 3,806 cyber specialists in 41 cyber teams to the joint Cyber Mission Force. So far it has about 1,160, said Sgt. Maj Jesse Cofield, the personnel sergeant major for the Army Cyber Command, in an interview with GovTechWorks.

Filling cyber positions “is challenging,” Cofield said. The Army is competing with colleges and universities, other services, and private industry for the same pool of 17- to 21-year-olds with cyber skills and potential.

So the service is increasingly doing “in-service recruiting,” trying to fill cyber jobs with skilled troops who have already joined the Army in some other capacity. For example, some Soldiers with cyber-related jobs in the signals and intelligence corps are being transferred into the new Army Cyber Branch. For some the transfer is optional; for others, it is mandatory, Cofield said.

To attract and retain enlisted talent, the Army is offering special duty assignment pay, assignment incentive pay, and bonuses to soldiers who sign up for cyber duty, Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, Army Cyber Command chief, told House lawmakers in March. Retention bonuses of as much as $50,400 are offered to “uniquely qualified cyber folks,” said Brandon Rice, a retention bonus program manager at the Army Human Resources Command. Those cyber bonuses are “within the top 10 percent of all bonuses” offered by the Army, Race said.

Meanwhile, the Army is also grooming new officers to be cyber leaders. In June, for the first time, the service commissioned 30 new cyber branch officers, some from West Point and others from the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Cardon said. The Army also has expanded cyber education programs, including training with cyber companies, and it now offers Army personnel access to advanced programs run by other services, such as the Air Force Institute of Technology and the Naval Postgraduate School, he said.

Even so, civilians will account for 30 percent of the Army’s cyber workforce. And identifying and recruiting civilian cyber talent is almost as challenging as getting people to put on a uniform. Low government pay and the government’s “comparatively slow hiring process” are critical challenges, Cardon told the subcommittee.

Complaints like Cardon’s about the torpid Federal civilian hiring process prompted Congress to give the Defense Department “a suite of civilian hiring authorities” to make hiring faster and easier, said Henderson, the Pentagon spokeswoman. The Defense Department can offer cyber specialists salaries of up to $132,000 a year.

The Army is offering relocation and retention bonuses and a student loan repayment program to help attract civilian cyber specialists, but Cardon said such inducements “require consistent and predictable long-term funding,” which can’t be counted on in the current sequestration era.

Rogers, the U.S. Cyber Command chief, acknowledged that money alone will not solve the problem.

“We are not going to compete on the basis of money,” he testified. “Where we’re going to compete is the idea of ethos, culture, that you’re doing something that matters, that you’re doing something in the service of the nation. And that we’re going to give you the opportunity to do some really interesting and amazing things.”

Air Power

The Air Force is embracing that same sales pitch.

The Air Force can’t match civilian salaries, but it remains attractive because it “offers a chance to serve the country in an exciting growth field,” said Brig. Gen. Sarah E. Zabel, the Air Force’s director of cyberspace strategy and policy.

“When you’re able to offer people a good, useful job, they tend to stay,” she said. “It’s not so much a money calculation as what are you getting up for in the morning.”

So far, it seems to be working. “Overall, we have good retention,” she said. “But we are watching it.”

The Air Force is on the hook to provide 1,715 cyber experts in 39 teams to the Cyber Command’s Cyber Mission Force. Thus far, two Air Force teams are fully operational and 15 are partially ready, according to Maj. Gen Burke Wilson, chief of the Air Force cyber forces, who told the House Armed Services subcommittee his teams, like those of the Navy and Army, will include about 80 percent military and 20 percent civilian personnel.

Attracting cyber troops has not been a problem, Zabel said. Airmen “basically are knocking down our door” to get into cyber jobs.

The Air Force is also rapidly commissioning cyber officers, bringing in about 200 new cyber officers a year, primarily from new college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. In addition, the service funnels about 2,000 enlistees into cyber jobs each year based on their vocational aptitude test scores. And more than 100 a year voluntarily transfer into cyber jobs, Zabel said.

But not all of these troops are headed to the Cyber Mission Force. The Air Force says that, as the service’s cyberspace operations and support career field functional manager, “Gen. Zabel is responsible for the development of 43,000 officers, enlisted and civilian personnel.”

Nearly all of those Airmen qualify for the higher pay and faster advancement promised to cyber troops. The Air Force lets new enlistees add “stripes for certifications,” essentially guaranteeing advanced rank for new enlistees with certain cyber-related certificates, Wilson said.

And to retain those troops once their enlistment contracts are up, the service offers reenlistment bonuses that can top $44,000 for a four-year commitment.

Cash is king because civilian cyber specialists, who “plan, implement, upgrade, or monitor security measures for the protection of computer networks and information,” earned an average of $91,600 a year in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indeed, that may be a low estimate. A 2013 BLS survey suggests those salaries approach $116,000 a year.

The Navy Way

The Navy’s tithe to the Cyber Mission Force is 40 teams, and so far, two teams are fully operational and 22 have reached initial operating capability, Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, chief of the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command, told House lawmakers.

The Navy is “on track” to meet accession goals for cyber Sailors this year, she said. It brings in freshly minted cyber officers from the Naval Academy and NROTC, and it fills other cyber posts with officers who transfer from other fields.

“To improve our pipeline” for cyber officers, the Navy has started university internship programs and created a cyber warfare engineer career field to attract recent college graduates with cyber expertise, Tighe said in an email response to questions.

Like the Air Force, the Navy uses the vocational aptitude tests to screen for cyber talent and then offers six-year enlistments to qualified cyber candidates.

But after six years, the Navy is hard-pressed to retain them. Cyber enlistees “receive high quality training and experience that makes them highly desirable to the private sector,” Tighe said. To keep them in uniform, retention bonuses reach up to $62,000 for cryptologic technicians, $30,000 for intelligence specialists, and $14,000 for information systems technicians.

For now, the bonuses are working, Tighe told House lawmakers. But “as the economy continues to improve, we expect to see more challenges in recruiting and retaining our cyber workforce.”

A Few Good Cyber Marines

The Marine Corps cyber force includes 1,000 Marines and civilians today and is growing to 1,300 by the end of 2016, said Maj. Gen. Daniel O’Donohue, commander of the Marine Forces Cyberspace Command.

Like the other services, the Marine Corps looks inside for some of its cyber talent. “We are accessing 16 feeder occupational specialties from the communications, signals intelligence, electronic warfare, data, and aviation specialty fields,” O’Donohue told the House subcommittee. Bonuses help. “The largest reenlistment or lateral move bonus offered in the past year was $60,750 offered to sergeants who move into the cybersecurity technician specialty,” he said.

The Marine Corps is responsible for providing 13 of the Cyber Mission Force teams.

Looking to the Reserve

In addition to seeking civilians to fill cyber jobs, the services are also depending on their reserves for help.

Six of the Air Forces cyber teams are to come from the Reserve – three each from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, said Zabel, the cyber policy and strategy chief.

“We very much value our reserve members. A lot of them hold positions in civilian companies that are critical to understanding our [cyber] domain,” Zabel said.

Likewise, the Army is also leveraging its reserve components to supplement its cyber skills, said Col. Mark DiTrolio, commander of Army Reserve Information Operations. These soldiers are already actively working in the cyber field, so their skills and training are current, and because they already have civilian jobs, they don’t represent the same kind of retention challenge as active duty troops, he said.

Up to 2,000 Reserve and National Guard personnel will support the Cyber Mission Force by allowing the Defense Department to surge cyber forces in a crisis, Rosenback told the Senate subcommittee.

1 Comment

  1. marla

    if the military (air force) is so in need to fill cyber jobs, why are young men who scored high enough to qualify for those jobs in the vocational aptitude tests, but are still sitting in the DEP waiting for something to come up in these job fields?


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