We Need Senior Cyber Leaders. Service War Colleges Can Train Them

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With the White House warning of Russian cyber attacks, senior U.S. cyber leaders could soon be forced to make critical and unprecedented decisions in this battlespace. Now more than ever, the Department of Defense needs specifically trained senior officers who have both the technical and strategic education to confront this challenge. The department is currently focused on developing technically skilled people in the junior uniformed and civilian ranks. This, however, is insufficient.

In order to prepare a new generation of senior cyber leaders, the service war colleges should begin by implementing a “Cyberspace Strategic Studies” track. Although their student bodies vary, these colleges share similar goals: improving the professional education of the highest levels of military leadership and applying the lessons learned during war. This makes the war colleges ideally suited to prepare our future cyber generals and senior civilian leaders.

The Need for Senior Cyber Education

Today, senior-level cyber education across the military is inadequately funded and lacks uniformity. The force’s few existing cyber institutions are under constant danger of budget cuts.  Each service has a different approach to cyber education, but none have dedicated specific resources to senior cyber-leader development. The Naval War College hosts a research institute for cybersecurity that offers research and elective support as well as graduate certificate programs that can be accessed remotely for senior leaders with enough spare time. The Army Cyber Institute at West Point, like its Navy counterpart, focuses on research and information exchanges. Finally, the Air Force Cyber College is working on a cyber leadership certificate in coordination with the National Security Agency, but this is not as rigorous or comprehensive as the training offered at a war college.



Only the College of Information and Cyberspace at the National Defense University has a dedicated program to prepare our future cyber colonels and generals. But it is exclusive to the select few uniformed and civilian leaders who attend. Expanding this exclusive program to the service war colleges will make it available at the institutions where most senior uniformed and civilian cyber leaders receive their professional education.

Success in the cyber domain will depend on the Department of Defense’s ability to develop senior leaders who can integrate new capabilities and adopt new approaches. To that end, the Department of Defense established a cohesive set of department-wide cyberspace workforce management directives to help facilitate the tracking and development of the cyber workforce, including senior cyber leaders. Based on a recent 2021 Department of Defense cyber manpower data call, there are roughly 700 positions coded for a “cyber executive leader.” This number is likely to rise, as coding of the cyber-heavy Army military positions is still in progress. No matter the final results, we do not need all the Army data to see the growing demand for fully qualified senior cyber leaders. Further, the recent Department of Defense Instruction 8140 directs services to confirm the qualification status of the cyberspace workforce as an element of mission readiness. Senior professional military education is the obvious way to help the Department of Defense meet this requirement.

Joint Guidance and Cyber

For service war colleges to build a dedicated cyber track, their curricula must coincide with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff instruction on officer professional military education. The May 2020 release describes an outcomes-based approach across six joint learning areas, three of which are well suited to support a dedicated course for senior cyber leaders: strategic competition, security, and joint planning. To be successful, cyber leaders need to understand their role during all three of these phases of strategy development and planning.

The chairman’s instruction listed only the National Defense University College of Information and Cyberspace as deliberately developing senior uniformed and civilian cyber leaders. However, having one exclusive college inside one exclusive university cannot satisfy the demands created by the current security environment. By leveraging the joint learning areas, every service war college can help meet the requirement to mitigate the cyber leadership gap. Service war colleges are the critical junctions where the services deliberately develop senior leaders. Service research institutes, distance learning options, and centers of excellence do not combine the study of national and defense strategy development, campaign planning, and other national security activities: This convergence only occurs at the service war colleges. These colleges, then, are readymade to develop uniformed and civilian cyber senior leaders.

Proposed Cyber Studies Track

As in any educational program, the challenge is to balance breadth and depth of knowledge. The current federal cyber leader standards and recent College of Information and Cyberspace curricula offer a way to do so. Building on these documents, a “Cyberspace Strategic Studies” track should address five aims. The first is to ensure cyber leaders can evaluate the national security environment, emphasizing the impact of cyberspace operations and evolving technologies on all instruments of national power. The second is to ensure cyber leaders integrate joint doctrine perspectives into cyberspace operations and strategy. The third learning objective centers on analyzing the critical aspects of cyberspace operations, technology, theories, laws, and policies in developing national and service strategy, joint operations, and other Department of Defense activities. The fourth is an ability to evaluate and mitigate potential vulnerabilities and respond to technological forces that threaten joint operations. Finally, the fifth is to apply principles of strategic leadership, decision-making, and ethical conduct to cyber capability employment.

These five learning objectives would establish a common framework for the service war colleges to bring together deep knowledge of the cyber environment with strategic leadership skills to influence culture and military strategy. The dedicated cyber track should build upon each service war college’s existing foundational course frameworks — already described in the chairman’s instruction — by adding cyberspace perspectives and challenges.

If used as a departure point, the current College of Information and Cyberspace curriculum can further synchronize the service war colleges. The cyber track should include senior uniformed and civilian leaders from the cyber, information, space, acquisition, and information technology occupational specialties. The cyber track should also feature collaborative sessions with industry partners and other federal agencies to explore different capabilities and methods. Regional studies could also address critical cyber partners and allies.  And, of course, research by students in the cyber track should focus on cyber domain challenges.  Only a dedicated track can ensure that all these learning objectives are achieved and that graduates meet the department’s requirements for the cyber leader position.

At the moment, only Air War College has the resources to expand the College of Information and Cyberspace program into a service war college. Navy and Army war colleges may need time to gather similar resources from within their research institutes and centers of excellence. But each academic year that passes constitutes a missed opportunity. Senior uniformed and civilian cyber leaders need a development track akin to that which already exists for leaders in national strategy, as well as maritime and space operations.  Cyberspace requires the same deliberate developmental rigor. Service war colleges are uniquely positioned to provide it.



Alfredo Rodriguez is a U.S. Marine Corps civilian currently attending the Air War College as part of a competitive Defense Department Senior Leader Development Program. He is a senior analyst to the U.S. Marine Corps deputy commandant for information on civilian cyber workforce issues. Previously, he served as an Army signal lieutenant colonel and director of operational excellence at Aramark.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Seth Haddix)