Building an Effective Cyber Force

By Katrina Schweiker

“Suitable pilots can be drawn only from certain classes, such as the young men who go to our colleges and not only are proficient in their studies, but in athletics such as football, baseball, tennis, polo, and other equestrian exercises which make the body and mind act together quickly.” ~ Billy Mitchell, Winged Defense, p 24

In 1925, when Billy Mitchell first wrote Winged Defense, his treatise on the development of air power, heavier-than-air flight had only been possible for 22 years. It is hard to understate the revolutionary technological development that is represented by the airplane, but the technology was so new that it inspired many fear-based hypotheses about the best way to exploit the air domain for national defense. Because it was so rare for anyone to experience flight in the 1920’s, Billy Mitchell viewed “air-going” people as an entirely new class. In his interpretation, the air domain was so new and complex that only a certain person – read college educated, upper class, athletic, white, and male – would be capable of flying an aircraft. That idea held until the demand for air power during World War II forced the War Department to expand its aperture. The Tuskegee Airmen and Women Air Service Pilots proved that anyone with aptitude, regardless of socioeconomic background, race, or sex could be trained to fly aircraft. Furthermore, the success of the Army’s aviation warrant officer program shows that those without college degrees are perfectly capable pilots. An important lesson from this evolution of thought regarding who is fit to fly aircraft can be applied to the cyberspace operations career field: the uniformed cyberspace operator does not necessarily have to be a computational genius.

In many ways, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) domain and the cyber operators who fight there are viewed today as the air domain was seen in Billy Mitchell’s time: something entirely new that requires a new framework. However, the effects of virtual warfighting in cyberspace lack the urgency and terror that came from the airborne bogey man created by Billy Mitchell in the 1920s. Regardless, future conflicts will rely heavily on cyber forces, because both state and non-state actors have increasingly mastered the art of cyber operations and information dominance. The Air Force will be unprepared for these future conflicts, as well as continued fights against terrorism, if we do not recruit and retain skilled cyber professionals. As a result, the Air Force has considered altering standards to recruit and retain an elite cyber force.

“How much brawn does the military need, and how much intellect? I think about a cyber warrior. Do I care what a cyber warrior weighs? Do I care if he can run a mile and a half in 12 minutes?” ~ Lt Gen Gina Grosso, USAF/A1

If the Air Force wants to be highly effective in future cyber operations, it is critical that we move away from the idea that only a certain class of people are “good at cyber.” Lt Gen Grosso’s statement presumes that the percentage of the population that would excel as a cyber professional are not physically capable of being deployable and that Airmen who are physically deployable are incapable of becoming cyber warriors. This sentiment echoes Billy Mitchell’s attitudes that only a certain type of people are capable of performing a given function. The skills required to be an effective operator employing cyber weapons – navigating different operating systems, programming, and system maintenance – are all trainable. The Air Force does not need to recruit people who do not meet military standards to build an elite cyber force, because an effective schoolhouse will be able train a reasonably intelligent service member from any background to effectively employ cyber weapons. If an exquisitely unique tool requires development, it can be obtained from our civilian or contractor workforce, which will be overseen by officers who are familiar with cyber operations fundamentals.

Donning the uniform of any of the United States military services comes with a certain responsibility. To the layperson, there is no distinction between a pilot, space operator, cyber warrior, maintainer, intelligence officer, or scientist. They only see Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines – and sometimes, not even that is distinguishable. A cyber warrior who does not meet physical fitness or dress and appearance standards is not fit to fight. This requires the military members around them to assume more risk. A cyber officer who does not meet basic fitness standards will either put other people’s lives at risk should they be tasked to deploy, or will put other people’s lives at risk, because they will have to pick up the deployment tasks for which the unfit member is ineligible. This would place an undue burden on already over-tasked Airmen. The concern does not end with operational tempo. The military medical system was designed to ensure service members are able to maintain operational readiness. In its current construct, it does not handle chronic illnesses or issues very well, so a service member that cannot meet medical standards would also burden the severely undermanned medical corps and lead to increased personnel costs.

The best way to solve the cyber operations personnel problem is to keep only the execution of cyber tools as a Title 10 US code activity that is performed by Airmen in uniform. Just like pilots are not responsible for designing and building aircraft the aircraft they fly – that is left to the engineers and production specialists at Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing – cyber operations Airmen do not necessarily need to develop the tools they employ. Rather, federal civilian and contractor personnel can build the tools for uniformed cyber operators to execute. One solution to building an elite cyber force could include replicating the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Personnel Demonstration system, which makes it easier and faster to directly hire technical experts. While not a perfect system, Direct Hiring Authority makes it possible for AFRL to hire technical experts to design, build, and test novel weapons systems in less than a year, and sometimes as quickly as three months. Alternatively, cyber weapons developers could consist primarily of contractors. Many linguists that are employed by government agencies are contractors to allow the agencies the flexibility to respond rapidly as different languages rise or fall in strategic importance. A cyber weapons development force that is primarily contractor based would provide the same flexibility, allowing the talent pool to shift as certain computer languages or techniques become more important than others. There are many options to get the right mix of talents for an elite cyber force. Sacrificing good order, discipline, and fitness to fight should not be one of them.

Katrina Schweiker is a Major in the United States Air Force. She holds a BS in Physics, a PhD in Biophysics, and is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College. Katrina is a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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