Two of the most critical issues facing the U.S. military right now are the need to retain its highly trained personnel, and the need to address our country's vulnerability on the cyber warfare front. So what if we were to approach those two problems by using them to help solve each other?
I can think of no better example of the retention problem than the case of my own son, who earlier this year resigned from the U.S. Navy to take a job with IBM. He graduated with a degree in computer science from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2003, ranked ninth in his class of more than 1,000 midshipmen with a 4.0 grade point average. That performance earned him a scholarship to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, where he excelled in completing a master's degree in computer science. To say that he was one of the Navy's best isn't just the rambling of a proud papa-he served with distinction on two deployments to the Middle East, and was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal.
Unfortunately for the Navy, my son resigned just about as soon as he was entitled to do so. The reason: The only options the Navy gave him entailed future deployments that would mean many more months away from his family. With strength and dedication to duty, he endured missing the birth of his first child, but he wasn't going to miss another one. So today, IBM and its clients, not the Navy and the citizens it serves, are the ones benefiting from his capabilities.
Meanwhile, the cyber warfare threat against our country is escalating by the day. A story I wrote on the topic last year was only one of many that have documented the seriousness of the threat. Here's an excerpt:
"Laws of war would forbid targeting purely civilian infrastructure," [says] Steven Chabinsky, senior cyberadvisor to the director of national intelligence. "But terrorists, of course, don't limit themselves by the Geneva Conventions." While Chabinsky declined to be specific because of concerns about compromising intelligence-gathering methods, he affirmed that the U.S. has identified "a number of sophisticated nation-state actors who we believe have the capability to bring down portions of our critical infrastructure." Although terrorists may not be capable of attacking our critical infrastructure themselves, "it's less clear whether they could find a hired gun to do so," Chabinsky says. "Obviously, terrorist groups have the intent to harm us, are aware of the potential impact of a successful cyberattack and would find the ability to attack us from a distance quite appealing."
Now, in light of that threat, suppose the U.S. military enticed its most talented computer experts to extend their service by guaranteeing that they wouldn't be deployed overseas for months on end, but rather would serve at home on a virtual overseas battlefield to counter the cyber warfare threat. The good news is that steps are being taken that could lead to exactly that.
Military Times reported yesterday that the U.S. Marine Corps plans to introduce a new cyber warfare career path that would allow Marines to serve for the length of their commitment without being deployed overseas. Lt. Gen. George Flynn, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, explained it to a House Armed Services Committee panel this way:
"One thing that we have to take a look at is, once you get somebody schooled in this area and they become an effective operator, they need to stay in it. And so we're going to have to take a look at career progression [in which it] isn't going to be acceptable to somebody not to have to go out of occupational specialty assignment to get promoted," Flynn said. "This may be the case where, once you're in cyber, you never leave the cyber, something like we do with some of our special operations units."
Although Flynn had few specifics for what Marine officials could be cooking up, he did mention that cyber-Marines could have longer enlistments, of which about two years would be spent just in training, and there may be special bonuses or other lures to keep them in the force.
Flynn and the top cyberwarfare commanders of the other three services, who appeared with him, acknowledged the military will not be able to compete with the private sector in paying top dollar for cyber experts. But, they said, they're confident they can recruit specialists with the promise of high-quality training and their pitch of joining the few and the proud.
The sooner this program is realized, the better for our country, especially if it's expanded to entice personnel who are computer experts, but whose initial service wasn't cyber-warfare-related, to remain in military service.