The Pentagon is taking new steps to build cyber talent in the U.S. military, but experts suggest the armed forces have structural problems that prevent them from becoming a digitally cohesive unit.
Current and former U.S. military officials also tell Fifth Domain that recruiting enough cyber forces is a struggle for the Pentagon.
The U.S. Air Force’s cyber warfare operations is only 46 percent filled, according to a 2016 Air Force Research Institute report, the most recent year available.
The Pentagon is hoping to hire 8,300 cyber positions starting this year, Brig. Gen. Dennis Crall told lawmakers Sept. 26.
“It’s difficult to recruit competent quality that we’re looking for in every part of the country. In some cases, it’s due to high-demand, low-density assets," Crall said. “There’s just really a strict competition. In other place, they just don’t exist, writ large, where we need them.”
“We recognize that we are in a competition for talent,” Gen. Richard Angle told reporters at an Aug. 8 roundtable. He said that the Army is currently recruiting enough cyber soldiers but if the force wants to grow, it will have to increase its retention. “This is a very high-demand space with a low density population to draw from.”
Angle said that the Pentagon is considering changing the ratio of civilian and military officials in its national mission force, although no decision has been made.
Noting its issues, the Pentagon has taken some steps to attract and retain talent.
The Department of Defense announced Oct. 25 that it is opening the Tatooine workspace in Augusta, Georgia, a facility that will house civilian and military officials working on cyber issues.
In the new work space, Pentagon officials will be working together in “unclassified, collaborative, startup-like spaces using technology and tools found in the private sector,” the Department of Defense said in a statement.
The partnership will “serve as a powerful retention and recruitment tool,” said Lieutenant General Stephen Fogarty, which is expected to occur because top tech talent will be cultivated and supported with the program.
Projects included in the new center include hunting for adversaries in Pentagon networks and redesigning training for cyber soldiers, as well as drone-detection technologies.
This summer, U.S. Cyber Command also went on a hiring spree and created a new process to recruit professionals. The new process included on-the-spot job offers and the first-ever public hiring event.
But the new steps are not likely to be enough, according to former military officials. They tell Fifth Domain that the Pentagon needs to consider using civilians for some tasks.
“We really need to think hard about what needs to be in uniform, what is nice to be in uniform, and what just needs to be done,” said Bryson Bort, a former U.S. Army officer and the founder of SCYTHE, a cybersecurity firm.
“There is a lack of understanding in the combat arms about what cyber could be beyond the latest du jour.”
Hiring cyber talent is a national security priority, a 2018 Defense Science Board report argued.
"The recruiting challenge in the military is especially challenging because of the competition they face with the private sector,” Dave Weinstein, a former official at U.S. cyber command told Fifth Domain.
“A lot of DoD roles are not open to civilians. If the Pentagon approach staffing agnostic of whether or not the person wears a uniform for cyber, they might expand their access to human capital.”
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.