Network Security

Recruiting and developing the 21st century cyber warrior

Last month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn III announced that the Department of Defense (DoD) was releasing a cybersecurity strategy explicitly recognizing cyberspace as a new and official warfare domain.

The Pentagon's strategy outlines circumstances in which a cyberattack against U.S. computer networks could be considered an act of war.

Given recent widely publicized attacks that demonstrate advanced, growing threats in cyberspace, and the creation in 2009 of the U.S. Cyber Command, it is evident that the DoD is beginning to recognize the extreme threat that an organized, targeted cyberattack could pose to national security. With cyberspace as a newly recognized – and extremely complex – warfare domain, our military is now faced with the challenge of defending government networks, and perhaps even critical infrastructure systems relying on commercial networks, just as it has defended land, sea, air, and space.

There will be many keys to the military's success in defending this domain, but among the most important is its ability to recruit, train, and retain talent in this new area, one which is both unconventional and unfamiliar to many of our military leaders.

The U.S. military has always been a world-class recruiting and training organization in its traditional warfare domains.

Through a variety of recruiting programs that offer an array of professional development opportunities, the military has managed to recruit and retain a world-class, all-volunteer force that is able to meet and maintain mandated recruiting numbers. The military offers a number of tuition assistance opportunities and clear, defined paths for career progression.

But while some existing programs may be suitable for recruiting, training, and retaining cyber warriors, a new perspective is needed to obtain both the quantity and caliber of talent necessary to defend the nation's networks against increasingly sophisticated cyberthreats.

Given the tendency toward constant connectivity and collaboration, which at times can conflict with the military's regulated and restricted information environment, the millennial generation presents its own recruiting challenges. When coupled with the challenge of competing with private sector recruitment for top cyber talent, the U.S. military is faced with a daunting task.

The challenge is not dissimilar to the early days of the air domain, when pilots were criticized for their radical views that did not fit neatly into military culture. Cyber practitioners thrive on the ability to foster innovative and unconventional thinking, typically in a highly collaborative environment. This can at times be in conflict with a regulated environment that promotes a regimented career path, which ultimately emphasizes and rewards general leadership over technical expertise in a specific domain.

Yet some of the individuals most talented in the cyber domain might not have the same leadership aspirations and might function most effectively as technicians rather than leaders through the duration of their careers. Additionally, the military heavily relies on rank-based assignments; however, the greatest cybersecurity talent will likely resist assignments outside their area of expertise and passion.

Given these challenges, how can the U.S. military provide a viable career path that will allow for effective recruitment and retention of talented cyber warriors?

While the answer to this question is not straightforward, it is clear that more innovative human capital strategies are needed to address these significant challenges.

To be successful, the U.S. military should consider some key differences in its approach to recruitment in the cyber domain.

Develop a viable career path for individuals with specialized cyber skill sets, and advertise this career path in recruiting messages.

The DoD should not limit its options when identifying the attributes of a cyber warrior and his or her typical career path. Officer, enlisted, and even civilian career paths should all be options.

Some services may find it beneficial to devise a warrant officer career path for cyber warriors that are willing to invest the time it takes to develop and hone specialized, technical expertise in the cyber domain. Additionally, leadership positions should not necessarily be a required outcome in career progression unless specifically desired. While the military needs cyber warriors in its officer ranks, providing an officer path alone will not yield the large number of resources that are needed.

For those cyber warriors who do desire leadership positions, offer the option of promoting these technical liaisons into leadership roles. The military needs technical liaisons to explain the mission impact of identified cyberthreats and vulnerabilities to military leaders and decision makers.

Even in a controlled environment, find methods for embracing diversity of thought and collaboration.

The environment in which cyber warriors will thrive is a highly collaborative one that encourages free thinking and innovation. Working side by side in a think-tank-like environment can produce a connection for like minds to collaborate and excel. This can even serve to reduce formal training costs because often the best training in this domain can occur on its own by physically or virtually collocating several passionate people to facilitate their knowledge sharing.

Do not force cyber warriors into alternate career paths.

Due to the specialized nature of the skill sets required by the cyber warrior, this discipline tends to draw people very passionate about the subject matter, individuals who will be largely disinterested in assignments outside the cyber domain and will serve the military best behind a computer rather than on the battlefield. The military should re-examine its rotation practices and rank-based assignments when allocating resources within the cyber domain.

Find ways to reward technical expertise and increase retention.

This is a challenging pursuit because private industry typically offers higher compensation for the skill sets the military is seeking.

There are many methods for providing incentives, including more traditional tools already in use, such as tuition payment and specialized training; however the best way to reward the cyber warrior is with the opportunity to learn something new. The appeal of working in an environment that allows for exercising the latest and most innovative technologies will be the military's best retention tool. The introduction of simulated environments to promote skill building, collaboration, and innovation could in many cases be its own reward for the cyber warrior.


The current threat environment demands a highly capable force of cyber warriors to defend our military networks and critical infrastructure. To this end, the U.S. military must shift its human capital paradigm to achieve recruiting and retention success in the cyber domain.

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