Workforce is DoD’s biggest cyber challenge

The Defense Department and its services plan to hire a total of 1,000 cyber professionals each year over the next three years, Gen. Keith Alexander tells a Hous...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Across the Defense Department and all the military services, the shortage of qualified cybersecurity employees is evident now more than ever.

Between the DoD Cyber Command, the new Army Cyber Command, the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command, the Air Force’s 24th Air Force and the Marines Cyberspace Command the dearth of available talent is slowing efforts to bring all of these new offices to full operational capability.

“This is going to take time to generate the force,” said Gen. Keith Alexander Thursday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on DoD’s Cyber Command. “If you were to ask me what is the biggest challenge we currently face? It is generating the people that we need to do this mission. We have our command stood up, our staff stood up, but the force is what we now have to rely on.”

Alexander said DoD will hire 1,000 cybersecurity workers a year across all the services over the next few years to help build up that force. But he and his Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines counterparts know it will take a lot of time. The Navy, for example, will increase the number of cyber workers in its Fleet Command to 200 from 130 in 2011 alone.

“We are taking a total force look and the challenge is not only getting the active duty, but also the reserves,” said Marines Lt. Gen. George Flynn, deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration. “It’s something that we can take a look at when we try to define what an operational reserve is. We also have to attract the professional civilian workforce as well.”

Flynn, who testified along with the other major military services in a second House Armed Services Committee hearing on cybersecurity in the afternoon, said the Marines Corps must improve the way it recruits and retains cybersecurity workers.

“[O] ne thing that we have to take a look at is once you get someone schooled in this area and they become an effective operator, they need to stay in it,” he said. “We need to look at career progression [where] somebody [is] not going to have to do an out of occupational specialty assignment to get promoted. This may be the case where once you are in cyber, you never leave cyber. Something like what we do with some of our special operations units.”

Alexander said the recruiting usually is the easy part. It’s the training and retainment where DoD and many others fall short.

In fact, Alexander said with the soft economy, the National Security Agency is finding fertile recruitment for cyber experts. One recent cyber related position received more than 800 applicants.

“What’s the calculus for retaining this high end talent?” Alexander asked during his hearing. “When we send them to school, they go for two years. It would be my preference that they don’t cycle through jobs like we normally do in the military but keep them in place longer. We are going to need to keep people in place longer and to retain them…I think the bonus systems and other things we have to look at. It’s yet to be done to make sure we retain the right force.”

Flynn and others add that also means the looking at the length of enlistment contracts.

In the Navy, Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, commander of the cyber command, said seamen and women enlist for six years and the goal is to get them into the field as soon as possible.

He added that for certain skills, such as cryptologist, the Navy offers up to $75,000 if the sailor reenlists for six years.

“We have initiatives to create new officer specialties including cyber warfare engineers and cyber warrant officers,” McCullough said. “The establishment of a training program at U.S. Naval Academy will create new opportunities to train officers dedicated to cyber operations. There is no way the Defense Department can compete with industry in the area of monetary compensation, salary if you will, but we can provide our people with expanded opportunities for education, training and help them build experience as leaders that cannot be matched elsewhere.”

Flynn said the Marines also must look at the most appropriate incentive package to recruit and retain employees with the skills.

Once DoD or the service recruits a soldier, an airman, a Marine or a seaman, they must ensure they are trained according to the same standards.

Alexander said DoD and the services are developing and administering training jointly.

“Our cyber training is at one school and if we have to go to multiple schools it will be done with one standard,” he said. “So that you know, our combatant commanders know, the folks that are forward know that whether they get a solider, Marine, airman or sailor, that that person is trained to a standard and can accomplish the mission that’s expected of them.”

The mix of civilian and military employees is another question DoD is trying to answer, as well as how do they complement other partners, whether the intelligence community or the Homeland Security Department.

Alexander added that the workforce issue will stand in the way of everything DoD wants to do to protect its networks.

“I am optimistic we will get the force we need,” he said. “We are pushing on the services to go faster to bring those forces in. If I would tell you my greatest concern is moving fast enough to provide a capability to defend our networks in time if a crisis would occur. We see that as our number one mission: be ready. Right now we have to build that force to get there. That is going to take some time. We have some force structure, the services have leaned forward on that and they are presenting some capabilities. We are moving down that road.”

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