The President’s Own as a Model for the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary


“If anybody wants to join, you can sign up. You can have purple hair, too, but no EGA [eagle, globe, and anchor],” then-Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said after announcing the creation of the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary. While he made the comment half-jokingly, Gen. Neller was serious in striking a balance between two sides of a larger debate in the Marine Corps. As the clock ticks down toward a future conflict in which cyber expertise will play a pivotal role, the shortage of cyber experts has exacerbated tensions about attracting and retaining cyber talent without sacrificing marine standards and culture. A major flashpoint in the discussion is whether cyber experts can bypass the transformation process of earning the title “marine” through boot camp, which culminates with the presentation of the coveted eagle, globe, and anchor.

Fortunately, the process of joining the United States Marine Band, also known as the “President’s Own,” is a proven, uniquely Marine way for recruiting, inducting, and retaining top national talent that often takes a lifetime of specialization to develop. A six-month military occupational specialty school or even an entire four-year standard military contract simply cannot replicate a skill perfected since childhood. Recognizing this quandary, composer and conductor John Philip Sousa created what would become the joining process in 1880 at the request of then-Commandant Col. Charles McCawley to reform the band into the world-class institution that it is today. In a time when the Marine Corps is hurting for cyber expertise, the Marine Band process provides a solution to a difficult talent management problem of modern warfare that preserves what it means to be a marine.

The Cyber Talent Problem and Debate

Serious manpower gaps. Cyber talent deficits. Critical shortages. The Marine Corps, as well as the rest of the Department of Defense, is struggling to obtain the cyber expertise it needs to build and sustain a 21st century force. Aggressive interservice competition for the already small pool of Americans eligible to join the military, high physical, ethical, and medical standards, as well as competition with private sector salaries make it difficult to attract and retain the necessary cyber talent. The Marine Corps is not alone: Eighty-two percent of civilian employers report a shortage of cyber security skills. Further, particularly in the case of the Marine Corps, there is the issue of culture and the tradition of “every marine a rifleman”: the expectation that every marine maintain a level of basic combat skill, regardless of specialization. The stereotypical image of criminal, overweight hackers with purple or blue hair clashes strongly with what one famous retired marine recently called a “Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms and exacting standards.”



Recent War on the Rocks articles by Nina Kollars and Emma Moore and by retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian effectively represent the two ends of the spectrum of debate over how best to bring cyber talent into the Marine Corps. Kollars and Moore argue that the future of war requires the cyber talent to win it and asks why not adjust current Marine Corps standards to allow cyber experts to be “full-on marines?” Echoing Clausewitz (and Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 Warfighting) Cancian retorts that the violence inherent to the unchanging nature of war requires that the Marine Corps stick with the training forged through the sacrifices of generations of marines. He argues that the creation of “non-combat marines” would be dangerous, unnecessary, and damaging to the Marine Corps.

Both sides have their merits and drawbacks. From outside the organization, Kollars and Moore see the technological ground shifting under the feet of the Marine Corps and urge the service to adapt. However, they seem to undervalue the transformation process that has been at the core of the Marine Corps for over two centuries.  Cancian does not want to see the sheepdog cash in its fangs before the wolf attacks and clearly sees himself as protecting the institution from a change that is a slippery slope toward marines being unprepared to survive and thrive in the violence of war. While Cancian is correct that war’s nature is inherently violent and does not change, the means and methods that the Marine Corps uses evolve continuously. At present, the Marine Corps is simply not able to obtain and retain the expertise it needs to stay competitive in the cyber race that its adversaries intend to win. This is a problem.

Former Commandant Gen. Robert Neller created the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary in April 2019 to implement a solution halfway between these two camps. The Cyber Auxiliary is a volunteer organization that aims to be “a small cadre of highly-talented cyber experts who train, educate, advise, and mentor Marines.” Establishing it as a volunteer organization of civilians cleverly circumvents the majority of the issues restricting the flow of cyber talent to the Marine Corps. It also does not compromise the integrity of what it means to be a marine. However, volunteers are limited in what they can do and likely how much time they can commit. Moreover, as Kollars and Moore point out, there will almost certainly be division between the full-time marine in group versus the part-time civilian out group. While the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary is a promising initiative, it has the potential to be more effective at both attracting and retaining cyber talent and able to handle the full scope of cyber operations for the Marine Corps if it adopts the band’s process.

The President’s Own

The U.S. Marine Band is an elite organization with a high operational tempo that prioritizes attracting and retaining America’s top musical talent while recognizing the sacrosanct tradition of earning the title of “marine.” Here is how it works:

  1. Openings with the band are advertised on social media and by directly contacting college band directors and instrumental music instructors.
  2. No specific level of education is required, but the band highlights the need for “musical versatility” and that many of its musicians hold advanced degrees. Other qualifications include U.S. citizenship, a background investigation, passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, and complying with height and weight standards.
  3. Auditions are conducted like those of major symphony orchestras, anonymously behind a screen, and also include a final interview based on performance.
  4. Once selected, applicants sign a four-year enlistment contract “for duty with the U.S. Marine Band only” and are permanently assigned and may not be transferred to any other unit or location. Upon enlistment, musicians obtain the rank of staff sergeant (E-6 grade) to provide competitive market-rate salaries.
  5. Musicians do not attend recruit or basic combat training because of their unique mission to provide music for the president and the commandant, their level of expertise upon joining, and absence of a secondary combat role. Upon arrival, musicians learn what it takes to be a part of an active-duty military band under the instruction of the assistant drum major.

What is the end product? An elite 160-member organization recognized worldwide for its excellence with over 60 percent of musicians holding advanced degrees from the top schools in their profession. Many of the musicians began their musical instruction in childhood (as early as age three), studied under the world’s most talented musicians, and toured internationally with renowned award-winning musical ensembles before joining. Once musicians join the band, many serve for twenty years or more and rise to the rank of master gunnery sergeant (E-9) or commission as officers to lead the organization. The rare and few openings in the band allow it to be exclusive and selective and are also evidence of its exceptional retention rate.

In a broader Marine Corps with a high personnel turnover, the Marine Band’s retention of extremely talented musicians until retirement is a bright spot that is difficult to explain. I recently spoke with the drum major of the President’s Own, Master Gunnery Sgt. Duane King, to better understand why. He believes the retention rate, which he puts at “well over 90 percent,” is primarily a result of the elite standard of performing in a group at the top of the profession. He said,

The secret sauce is that this is one of the best musical ensembles in the world. We have extremely high standards. We get to play for millions of people every year. We are at the White House all the time playing for heads of state. Musicians thrive off of high-pressure situations. We want to be on stage performing our craft in front of as many people as possible.

While the musicians do not serve the traditional combat or combat support role of marines who went to boot camp, members of this band are recognized for their excellence, as a powerful recruiting tool, and as a source of pride for marines. They are America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization and have played at every presidential inauguration since 1801. Their uniforms celebrate the tradition and successes of the Marine Corps, but are clearly distinguishable from those of marines with a combat role. Notably, their enlisted insignia have a lyre instead of crossed rifles to denote their specific mission. In doing so, the band strikes an important balance of offering its talents to the Marine Corps while not infringing upon its tradition and culture.

A Middle-Ground, Marine Solution to the Cyber Talent Problem

Now imagine the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary cast in the image of the President’s Own. Attracted by the prestige, the mission, and the powerful capabilities of the Marine Corps’ most elite cyber unit, cyber experts join through the President’s Own process. Many of these cyber experts have exploited and defended computer systems since age eight, apprenticed under the best cyber professionals, and worked for hacking groups or top cyber security firms. After passing through initial offensive and defensive cyber challenges online, the most successful candidates come to Marine Corps Base Quantico for a full day of testing and interviews. If they meet the demanding standards required by the Marine Corps, they sign a four-year contract “for duty with the U.S. Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary only” at the E-6 pay level with full benefits.

They arrive on the job fully trained to perform the current Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary train-advise-mentor mission, but as paid and screened members of the military could also conduct the secondary mission of providing full-spectrum cyberspace operations. They wear work and dress uniforms that distinguish their community from marines with a combat mission and their enlisted insignia have a circuit board instead of crossed rifles. They have not claimed the title of “marine” through the trials of recruit training, but they are respected for the outstanding and responsive cyber capability that they bring to the Marine Corps.

While the members of the new Cyber Auxiliary would fit Kollars and Moore’s vision, the ten other Marine Corps field bands provide a model for the type of tough cyber marines that  Cancian seeks. These bands initially screen for musical talent at the recruitment offices and have recruits sign a contract for the band only, but then send the musicians to recruit, combat, and musical training and they join the Marine Corps at the traditional pay scale. While their primary mission is to provide music, they are a provisional rifle platoon and when deployed abroad serve as rear-area security for the commanding general and can individually augment combat arms units on a voluntary basis.

Combat-trained marines in field cyber units attached to infantry divisions or air wings could serve in a role somewhat akin to a joint terminal air controller calling for fire from a drone remotely piloted from New Mexico. Cyber marines deployed in combat zones would likely have less cyber training, but a better tactical understanding of the situation on the ground than their more skilled counterparts in Marine Forces Cyber Command or Cyber Auxiliary in the United States. As division and wing-level assets, they could facilitate the smooth echeloning of fires from their cyber effects from beyond the horizon to the infantry marine shooting 5.56 mm in the last 100 yards. In time, these cyber marines will provide an organic base of talent for the Cyber Auxiliary, just as the field bands have for the President’s Own.

A Working Concept for Future Warfare Technology Talent Management

On July 11, 1798, President John Adams signed legislation to bring the Marine Band and one of the longest-standing traditions of the Marine Corps into existence. Since then, the Marine Corps has perfected the process of attracting national-level talent in a narrow professional field to a small, elite unit with a separate in-processing structure. Adapting the band’s process to more fully develop the Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary is an opportunity not only to attract and retain deeply needed cyber talent, but also to demonstrate a working concept for how to attain the expertise required to keep pace with the many emerging technologies that are changing how the Marine Corps will win the wars of tomorrow.

Commandant Gen. David Berger writes in the new Commandant’s Planning Guidance, in concurrence with Gen. Neller’s Marine Corps Operating Concept, that the Marine Corps “is not organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment.” If the Marine Corps can adapt the President’s Own process to manage cyber talent, it can also do it for other advanced technologies that require deep lifelong learning to effectively wield. Commandant Gen. Berger highlighted artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology, and quantum computing as such technologies that will transform the modern battlefield. Like many Marine Corps adaptations throughout its history, this is a chance to fuse tradition and innovation to make the Marine Corps a more lethal, world-class force prepared for the future of combat in the 21st century.



2nd Lt. Patrick Cirenza is a Marine infantry officer serving as a weapons platoon commander in 2d Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. Before joining the Marine Corps, he wrote theses on cyber warfare and cyber espionage as an undergraduate and graduate student at Stanford University and the University of Cambridge.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Austyn Saylor)