Marine Cyber Auxiliaries Aren’t Marines, and Cyber “Warriors” Aren’t Warriors

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Futurists have long been fascinated by the idea that future conflicts will be “push-button wars,” fought by geeky technical experts who exhibit few of the traditional military virtues. In this vein, Nina Kollars and Emma Moore recently argued in War on the Rocks for a radical change in Marine Corps culture to accommodate uniformed cyber auxiliaries and the new way of war that they represent — giving them the coveted eagle, globe, and anchor and “adjusting” fitness, grooming, and discipline standards. However, rather than positioning the Marine Corps for the future, such a change would be dangerous, unnecessary, and damaging to the institution. It is dangerous because creating “non-combat marines” assumes that the benign environments of the last 25 years will continue and ignores the physical threat that great power adversaries represent. It is unnecessary because there are already mechanisms to bring those skills into the Marine Corps without forcing technical experts into a military mold. And it damages the institution because it undermines the warfighting excellence that is the rationale for the Marine Corps’ existence.

Gen. Robert Neller’s approach was the correct one: Make cyber auxiliaries civilian members of the team, but not marines. If additional incentives are needed, pay auxiliaries through contracting organizations or challenge them by showing more cyber “secrets.”

What is this “cyber auxiliary?” Like all the services, the Marine Corps is struggling to find cyber experts. It can recruit and train a few but holding onto them is hard; they have many opportunities in the private sector. The Army is directly commissioning some cyber officers. The Marine Corps opted to create a “Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary,” a volunteer organization of civilian cyber experts who would advise and mentor marines. Members of the auxiliary would not be held to military grooming, physical, or discipline standards. However, they would also not get the eagle, globe, and anchor that signifies membership in the Marine Corps nor would they participate in wartime operations.



Kollars and Moore argue that a voluntary system does not offer enough incentives to attract cyber experts who make a lot of money in the private sector and want access to the truly interesting challenges associated with actual operations. They further argue that the Marine Corps’ focus on physical fitness reflects an outdated view of war and that Marine Corps culture should change to allow cyber experts to join on their own terms. That includes receiving the coveted eagle, globe, and anchor and being fully seen as marines.


Kollars and Moore claim that physical fitness and the traditional military values — aggressiveness, fortitude, endurance, sacrifice — belong to “a former era” and will not be needed for cyber troops because, presumably, they will operate from protected sanctuaries. They are not alone. As members of the War on the Rocks tribe might remember, we had a similar discussion in an article and podcast last year.

H.R. McMaster called this the “vampire fallacy”: that “technology would make the next war fundamentally different from all that went before it because information and communication technologies had shifted war.” He argues that this “exacerbates risk” because it ignores “the continuities in the nature of war.” Despite the visions of futurists, the outcome of wars has stubbornly turned on the results of combat between opposing infantry. The United States overthrew Saddam Hussein because its infantry (and tanks) rolled into his capital, Russia controls the Crimea because its infantry (and special forces) seized it, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate disappeared as a physical entity because coalition infantry (and airpower) destroyed it building by building.

Further, future wars may not offer the large base sanctuaries and air and maritime supremacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. All elements of the force may face contact with the enemy, not just those that go “outside the wire.” I have this recurring image of cyber warriors in their offices in a future war frantically punching keyboards as enemy infantry break through the door and gun them down.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed this view of war in his National Defense Strategy. The strategy argues that, “We face an ever more lethal and disruptive battlefield, combined across domains, and conducted at increasing speed and reach—from close combat, throughout overseas theaters, and reaching to our homeland.” While acknowledging gray-area competition, the strategy repeatedly talks about the need for lethality and resiliency.

Gen. David Berger built on this in his new planning guidance:

Our desired end-state requires elite warriors with physical and mental toughness, tenacity, initiative, and aggressiveness. …Demanding superior performance and enforcing high standards should not be viewed as draconian, but rather, should be expected by professionals. …Training must be focused on winning in combat in the most challenging conditions and operating environments — from the thin air and high altitudes of the mountains, to the sweltering heat of triple canopy jungles, and including the sprawling self-organized chaos of dense urban terrain.

One can argue that Mattis’ and Berger’s views of war belong to a “former era.” I disagree. The character of war may change, but the nature of war is eternal: War is violence. Any attempt to make it comfortable and easy will result in humiliation and defeat — an observation attributed to Gen. William Sherman. Creating a category of “non-combat marines” introduces fragility and vulnerability into the Marine Corps.

And what happens if the initial steps in relaxing physical and grooming standards are not enough? Should the Marine Corps go even further? For example, should the Marine Corps relieve cyber auxiliaries of the need to obey direction from senior officers because the cyber community dislikes hierarchy? Should the Marine Corps suspend anti-drug enforcement because illegal drug use is common in the cyber community ? Should the Marine Corps allow cyber auxiliaries to come and go as they please because the cyber community likes to make its own hours? Once started down this path, it is hard to say where the Marine Corps should stop.


The Marine Corps needs cyber and other specialized skills, but there is no need for the cyber tail to wag Marine Corps dog. There are other, much easier ways to get access to cyber expertise.

Kollars and Moore point out that cyber auxiliary members may not be content with being mentors and shut out of actual cyber operations. The constraint here is not grooming or physical fitness but information assurance and cyber security. Before being allowed inside the “green doors” of a secure facility, everyone must pass a security check. But members of the cyber auxiliary could receive such access if they qualified for it and the Marine Corps wanted to grant it. Auxiliaries don’t need to be military personnel to do such work.

Kollars and Moore also make the important point that the Marine Corps can plug into the cyber community in many different ways: for example, through bug bounties and hackathon tournaments. There is no need to jam cyber experts into the straitjacket of government personnel systems.

Paid compensation is also not a barrier. Reservists get paid for their part-time work. If additional incentives were needed, cyber auxiliaries could also be paid, not through the military pay system but through a contractor. The amounts might not be competitive with some civilian jobs, but would at least acknowledge the value of their time.

Damage to the Corps

Radically changing (lowering) standards and expectations raises a broader institutional question: Why is there a Marine Corps? Kollars and Moore argue that the United States values the Marine Corps for its innovation and agility. Yet I don’t think that the average American gets excited because the Marine Corps chases shiny new ideas in national security thinking. Instead, I think Americans want a Marine Corps for the reasons described in Gen. John Lejeune’s birthday message:

The record of our Corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence, the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. …In every battle and skirmish since the Birth of the Corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

Thus, recruits in boot camp receive their eagle, globe, and anchor and are first called marines after the “crucible,” a 54-hour marathon of hikes, obstacles, and combat problems. The price paid gives meaning to both the emblem and the title. To hand both out as recruiting incentives breaks faith with those who paid the steep price to earn them and undermines the warfighting excellence that they represent.

The Solution

One size does not fit all. Instead of forcing the cyber community into a military mold, the Marine Corps should embrace the diversity of all the personnel systems available to it. The Marine Corps team includes not just the active and reserve military personnel but also civilians and contractors. These other personnel contribute vital services to the Marine Corps but do so while conforming to the much looser standards of the civilian world. They do not wear the eagle, globe, and anchor and don’t expect to.

Neller was on the right track: Bring cyber expertise onto the Marine Corps team in the same way that the Marine Corps brings on civilians and contractors. Experiment with different incentives if that turns out to be needed.



Mark Cancian (colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, Ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program. Colonel Cancian spent over three decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, active and reserve, serving as an infantry, artillery, and civil affairs officer and on overseas tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq (twice). He holds a BA and MBA from Harvard University.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Antonio Garcia)