The Pentagon Should Adjust Standards for Cyber Soldiers — As It Has Always Done


Cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the world and qualified experts are in short supply. It is estimated that nearly 1.5 million cybersecurity jobs worldwide, in both the public and the private sector, will go unfilled by 2020.

But while the private sector can offer higher pay and benefits to entice qualified applicants, the U.S. government isn’t so fortunate. To make matters worse, the federal government — including both the intelligence and defense community — has difficulty retaining the cybersecurity talent it already has, as talented experts may leave government service after a few years for lucrative private-sector jobs. Indeed, the National Security Agency, racked by deep morale problems, is suffering 8 to 9 percent attrition rates among its hackers.

Cyber warfare has the potential to change the art of war as airpower did a century ago.  And just as the Army Air Force’s Air Transportation Command recruited talented civilian fliers during World War II, the Pentagon has implemented some creative recruiting, promotion, and retention policies for talented cyber personnel. In addition to a $40,000 signing bonus for cyber personnel, the U.S. Army has also offered a direct commissioning program for those willing to serve in the newly formed Cyber branch. There are even proposals for a “Cybersecurity Work Force Incubator,” which would permit cyber personnel to more easily transition between military and civilian jobs.

But as the Pentagon attempts to recruit more troops into its cyber forces, many have questioned how the armed forces will attract, train, and retain the best and brightest cyber personnel — and whether doing so will require holding cyber soldiers to different standards than traditional troops. A lively debate on this subject has been playing out here at War on the Rocks. One author, Jacquelyn Schneider, argues that cyber soldiers should be allowed to sport blue hair and be exempt from certain military standards. Mark Cancian disagrees, contending that service members, regardless of military specialty, must all adhere to the same standards of conduct, fitness, and appearance.

In fact, however, the armed forces have been down this road before. When there’s a need for more troops, especially with critical skills, the services have been known to resort to creative personnel policies (including modifying or ignoring some standards) to keep troops in uniform. Though these measures are often fraught with risks, they are risks the U.S. military must undertake if it is to be relevant in cyberspace.   

In October, President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots to active service to address the service’s growing pilot shortfall, although the Air Force has indicated it does not intend to recall retired aviators. A more significant precedent comes from the war on terror, when thousands of retirees were recalled to active duty. Many recalled retirees had special skills not easily found in the armed forces.  For example, within the medical community, one 79-year-old flight surgeon served with distinction as late as 2010. I served with several recalled retirees, and though they were patriotic Americans and healthy enough to serve on active duty (I know one retiree, nearly 60 years old, who dangled underneath a Black Hawk helicopter in a harness at a thousand feet over the ground at about eighty miles per hour), they are not always up to the same physical fitness standards as an 18-year old. The criteria for passing the Army Physical Fitness Test adjusts by age group, with no discernable standards beyond the age of 56. And although retirees may have critical job skills the armed forces need, based on anecdotal experiences, they can sometimes have low tolerance for Army bureaucracy and regulations.

The Army, in general, has often been accused of lowering its standards during the war on terror.  Though the Army may not have done this per se, certain decisions forced Army leaders to turn a blind eye to misconduct and poor performance — not explicitly lowering standards, but definitely ignoring them and exercising far less discretion with regards to issuing waivers.  In 2005, the Army raised the “separation authority” for removing problem soldiers from the ranks, making it harder to kick out soldiers for a variety of issues. Raising or lowering separation authorities has the effect of changing standards without technically doing so on paper, by increasing or decreasing the number of bureaucratic hurdles commanders must overcome to issue a waiver or chapter a problem soldier.    

Coinciding with the raising of the separation authority, the Army saw a marked decline in the number of troops separated for a variety of reasons, according to a fact sheet produced by the Army G-1. The number of soldiers chaptered for obesity and failure to pass the Army’s physical fitness test plummeted by over 80 percent between Fiscal Years 2001 and 2007, while the number chaptered for unsatisfactory performance dropped by nearly 75 percent between 2001 and 2006. One Army study even paid close attention to an 80 percent decrease in the number of recruits who were booted from basic training for “failure to adapt” disorders between 2001 and 2006. All this came on top of the drastic spike in waivers recruiters issued for a variety of conditions, including felony convictions. By 2007, one in eight new Army recruits required a waiver for a felony conviction. Moreover, the Army also saw an increase in the number of soldiers who required medical waivers for medical conditions or lack of a high school diploma.

Nevertheless, the de facto rather than de jure lowering of standards was necessary for the Army, which needed to grow from 490,000 troops to a high of 570,000 troops without resorting to a draft. Under the circumstances, recruiting or retaining poorer-quality soldiers was necessary to wage two manpower-intensive wars, although the Army in particular was wracked with indiscipline during that period.  

The armed forces have had a long history of adjusting and ignoring standards or waiving certain training requirements to allow for talented recruits in a variety of specialized fields — early aviation as well as the legal, medical, and religious fields are prime examples. The institution long accepted this, too — a uniform deficiency that might get an enlisted infantryman hemmed up may well be tolerated in a chaplain, a doctor, or a senior warrant officer. Cyber soldiers, for the time being, should be no different. Indeed, with so few Americans able to enlist in the armed forces (estimates vary, but roughly a quarter of Americans are unable to meet the Army’s enlistment standards) it might even be wise to try to incorporate patriotic Americans with disabilities into the ranks of cyber warriors. Although there will undoubtedly be a need to have cyber soldiers physically capable of jumping from airplanes and carrying heavy loads, the nature of cyber warfare might allow military leaders to accept more cyber soldiers with physical disabilities. Will cyber soldiers be allowed to sport blue hair? Perhaps not. But will military leaders resort to many of the same tactics it resorted to during the war on terror to keep talented cyber troops in the ranks? If past is prologue, yes.       

Finally, although the military should do its best to retain its best cyber talent, it should consider itself fortunate that its cyber warriors are going on to serve the country in the private sector.  Malicious cyber activity, by both state and non-state actors, has made every American a target. As we have seen recently, malicious cyber threats conduct espionage against American journalists, use ransomware programs to circumvent sanctions, and even cause physical damage or blockade an entire nation. The free flow of information, ideas, and trade is essential to the American way of life — the United States is lucky if its cyber soldiers continue to fight on that battlefield as veterans.    


Crispin Burke is a U.S. Army officer.  His views are his own and not those of the Defense Department.  Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.

Image: U.S. Navy/Peggy Frierson