Capturing Flags and Recruiting Future Cyber Soldiers

August 28, 2020
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The U.S. Army’s new esports team and its new recruiting videos are all part of its efforts to motivate the youngest generations to find a place within its ranks by highlighting what it has to offer and where one can go as a soldier. Even so, the military faces challenges with recruiting talent for the cyber domain. This does not mean that those individuals are not there, nor does it indicate that they are not interested in pursuing a career in the military’s cyber forces. However, it could indicate that the military is missing the mark in its new recruiting efforts to find and entice this critical population. As the military continues to struggle to fill its cyber workforce roles, it should consider other innovative ways to capture the attention of future cyber warriors, such as a competitive capture-the-flag team. Additionally, soldiers currently serving in the cyber workforce could work directly with recruiters to identify prospects with technical talent.

The Army has created the framework for exciting new recruits with its outreach teams and could add to its toolkit, speaking directly to a population familiar with information technology, with a competitive capture-the-flag team. This is not the capture the flag you may be familiar with from summer camp or playing in the backyard. Instead, capture the flag is an online competition for individuals or teams to use a range of technical computer skills to find hidden messages — flags — embedded in files or code. U.S. Army Recruiting Command already uses the Golden Knights, an elite parachuting team, the Army Marksmanship Unit, an international shooting competition team, its esports team, a team of soldiers competing in video game tournaments, and other unique engagement teams to reach a younger generation. These teams are not actually recruiters, but they understand their role within the recruiting spectrum and work to link potential recruits with the opportunity to serve. As early as January 2019, before the esports team was fully operational, it was already successful in generating leads for recruiters at competitions. If this is any indication of its potential as a recruiting mechanism, it is logical to assume that a competitive capture-the-flag team could identify and entice potential future cyber soldiers.

 

 

While the popularity of esports is undeniable — the Army has 20,500 followers on Twitch alone — and it helps contribute to a large pool of potential recruits, capture-the-flag competitions are also on the rise. According to CTFtime, there were 153 capture-the-flag events in 2018 and 197 in 2019. Of those, 46 were held on-site (as opposed to remotely) in 2018 while 52 were on-site in 2019. This increase emphasizes the growing pool of technical and information technology-capable recruits that the U.S. Army could access with a competitive team. Even though only a portion of those events are on-site, a presence in the online capture-the-flag community provides an avenue to advertise the capabilities and technical competence of cyber soldiers. Meanwhile, the in-person capture-the-flag events would give an Army team direct access to discuss with potential recruits the possibilities of serving in a unique and growing military field. Therefore, each engagement U.S. Army recruiting has with a technically capable population who have a passion for computing excellence creates the opportunity for it to increase its cyber ranks with the talent it needs to remain competitive against its adversaries. However, a competitive capture-the-flag team is not the only opportunity for cyber-capable soldiers to engage with potential recruits. The recruiting efforts should not stop there.

Bringing Cyber Expertise to Recruiters

U.S. Army Recruiting Command looks for recruiters that have experience in their field to ensure they can speak to their experiences when encouraging potential recruits to join, but the Army’s need for cyber soldiers prevents them from serving in recruiting roles. This lack of soldiers in recruiting with information technology experience makes it difficult for recruiters to understand and explain the role of cyber in the military. Recruiters may also struggle to appropriately identify the individuals capable of filling cyber roles, or understand the implications of those roles going vacant. Moreover, they may encourage potential recruits toward traditional U.S. Army jobs rather than ones with which they are unfamiliar. The Army could overcome these shortcomings with a specific cyber recruiting program.

The Army should consider creating a program for cyber soldiers to work with recruiters, teaching them about their role and their unique skill sets while also helping them find technically capable future soldiers. U.S. Army Recruiting Command could work with Army Cyber Command to develop mobile training teams of cyber soldiers who work across the latter’s vast mission set. As Army Cyber Command is a population of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences with a focus on talent, it must ensure it reflects that dynamic in its mobile training teams. The two commands could then identify areas across the country that are more likely to produce individuals with technical competence, like cities with large tech schools, and focus mobile training teams on recruiters in those areas first. But the Army can’t stop there: Technically talented people can come from any background and any place. It is imperative that the U.S. Army focuses on recruiting for technical talent across every corner of the United States and avoids recruiting based on socioeconomic status, race, or gender, as unconscious bias may influence recruiters when considering areas of potential talent. Any measure to recruit based on those factors will inevitably miss a large percentage of talent while hindering the future of U.S. Army cyber.

The mobile training teams could provide instruction on the skill sets cyber soldier possess, the types of assignments in which cyber warriors serve, and the opportunities cyber soldiers may have during their careers. Along with education, the mobile training teams may also be able to create screening questionnaires that simplify a recruiter’s assessment of technical competence and drive those with the appropriate capability towards an information warfare specialty. These efforts should help recruiters refine their methodologies in searching for the right population to fill the roles of the cyber force. If mobile training teams are not available, or if a recruiting station is too remote and lacks the facilities or resources to integrate with a team from Army Cyber Command, the Army could identify local or nearby units, including National Guard and Reserve units, with cyber expertise. The recruiting station would still have to access the expertise necessary to identify talent for the Army. Still, if a unit is unable to support, there is potential for cyber soldiers to assist recruiting efforts.

U.S. Army Recruiting Command has a Hometown Recruiter Assistance Program that allows soldiers who have completed initial entry training to help their local recruiters prior to going to their first duty station. This program tries to link these brand-new soldiers back into their community to create leads from the soldier’s friends and former classmates after they witness the soldier’s success joining the service. While the immediacy may help identify new recruits based on the soldier’s linkage to the community, the soldier does not have the experience necessary to explain all the military has to offer. Therefore, they are not well suited to understand the military’s need, especially when the necessary skills are highly technical. However, if the U.S. Army opens the aperture of this program to allow soldiers with experience to work with individual recruiters, it may lead to more success in recruiting for the cyber force.

The Value of One-on-One Assistance

A decade ago, while I was at Fort Irwin, I had the opportunity to augment some recruiters in Fresno, California. The recruiters asked that I bring as much of my military equipment as possible to show high school students what the military was about and what to expect. While there, I was able to interact with several classrooms of students, talking about my experiences as a cryptologic linguist at the National Training Center. I believe I captured their imagination and I hope I encouraged even one to pursue a career in the military. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence that shows whether this kind of recruiting is effective. Nevertheless, a program like this, with its similarities to the Hometown Recruiter Assistance Program, focusing on cyber recruiting and seeking assistance from the cyber work force, may be able to generate new leads for the force.

These recruiting suggestions may raise some concerns, including loss of cyber capability and diminishing skill sets of those on the team. While it is true that any time soldiers are away from their mission team it is a loss to that team, it is possible to have cyber soldiers enable these recruiting initiatives on a rotational or temporary basis. This would help minimize the impact of soldiers supporting these efforts. Additionally, the Army could initiate these ideas as a pilot and gather data during the initial stand-up. This data could allow the Army to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to measure any loss of capability or skill set against the number of leads the cyber soldiers generate or the number of successful recruits. During this pilot, if the cost to cyber capability is greater than the cyber forces the Army gains, then the answer is to end the program. I believe, though, that the analysis will demonstrate the success of directing recruiting efforts specifically towards a population with the capacity to bolster the military’s cyber workforce.

 

 

Sgt. Maj. Samuel Crislip has served in the U.S. Army for 22 years with backgrounds in military intelligence and cyber. He is a graduate of University of Maryland Global Campus and the National Intelligence University. He has held leadership positions across a diverse mission set and is slated to serve as a battalion command sergeant major in 2021. The views here are those of the author and do not represent those of the Army Cyber Institute, the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government. He is currently serving as the senior enlisted advisor for the Army Cyber Institute at West Point.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. R.J. Biermann