Sometime during the next week, the Army expects to convene a selection board to pick its first-ever cadre of newly-minted service members to move directly from the civilian cyber workforce to its officer corps. The fast track to a military commission means a theoretical full stack engineer working in Silicon Valley as of this moment could be a uniformed military officer within Army Cyber Command by next Memorial Day.
But the Army — acting under an explicit authorization from Congress, which has expressed a keen interest in boosting military accessions of cyber experts — is dipping its toe into the program very, very slowly. It will only accept five new officers per year via the new direct commissioning route, despite the fact that it has deep and longstanding experience in doing precisely the same thing for other specialized professions: doctors, lawyers and chaplains, on a routine basis.
There are reasons to proceed cautiously, Army officials argued, because questions abound about how this particular pilot program will end up working out. For one thing, the Army is targeting a slice of a slice of the American population: more than 70 percent don’t meet the physical or educational standards for military service under any circumstance.
“And within the 29 percent that’s available to us, we’re looking at a very discrete population that brings technical expertise to the table,” said Maj. Gen. Patricia Frost, the principal cyber adviser to the Army’s chief of staff. “We want to look for the right individuals who are ready and willing to defend our nation in cyberspace — people who may not have been looking to be an infantryman or an artilleryman. This is a way to serve your nation and defend the nation in the cyberspace domain.”
One primary goal for the new program is to get a jump on the amount of time it normally takes to develop new officers into ones that have the technical aptitude to lead and command the Army’s share of the 133 teams that make up the Defense Department’s Cyber Mission Force.
To that end, the Army is mostly looking for applicants who already have years of prior experience in fields like computer engineering, software development, auditing code for security vulnerabilities and architecting and deploying networks.
And while it’s widely accepted that a sense of mission is a bigger motivator than pay for most of the DoD’s current cyber professionals, it remains to be seen how many of applicants of that caliber the Army will be able to attract, considering its decision to commission the first crop of direct-commissioned officers as second lieutenants.
That’s the same initial rank given to fresh graduates from West Point, ROTC, or the Army’s Officer Candidate School. The annual basic pay is just over $36,000 (although, with housing allowances included, total cash compensation could go as high as $64,000 in Washington, D.C., a high cost of living area).
“This is a pilot program, and after year one, we’ll take a look at the lessons learned and whether we were able to attract the talent at that rank considering the kind of experience we try to go after,” said Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of Army Cyber Command. “It’s not a final determination yet.”
But Nakasone emphasized that direct-commissioned cyber officers would only remain as second lieutenants for the first few weeks of their new military careers, during which they’d technically be serving within the Army Reserve. After completing the Army’s four-week Direct Commissioning Course, they would get a slight pay bump to the rank of first lieutenant. They will then go through a 12-week Basic Officer Leader Course for cyber officers, meaning the entire process from initial accession to reporting to their first official duty station could be as short as four months.
The cadre the new officers will be joining is, altogether, a relatively new, selective and small club. Even via its more traditional accession routes — the U.S. Military Academy, ROTC and Officer Candidate School — the Army only plans to add a total of 87 cyber officers in 2018.
But those officers will have had substantial experience and preparation in acclimating themselves to military culture. The five who are coming directly from the outside world will have suddenly become officers with just a few weeks of acclimation.
“One of the things we’re going to do in Army Cyber is partner them up with a mentor,” Nakasone said. “It’ll be someone who has experience and the wherewithal and who’s been in our force for a little while, just so they can ask, ‘Hey, what’s my first experience going to be like, what should I expect, what’s it mean to be an officer, what are my responsibilities? We find that to be an effective way of developing talent.”
In 2017, the majority of cyber officers (55) joined the Army via ROTC programs, another 20 were West Point graduates, and 12 gained their commission through Officer Candidate School, a pathway the Army primarily uses for incoming cyber officers with prior experience as enlisted soldiers.
But officials said the new direct commissioning route differs from each of those in that successful applicants are guaranteed to be cyber operations officers, a pledge the Army does not make to OCS candidates. Also, under the pilot program, the Army will accept applicants up to 41-years old. Applicants to OCS are generally cut off at age 32.