New cyber warriors face culture shock

Photo courtesy National Security Agency. 

The U.S. military services continue to stand up cyber recruiting and training programs, but they are also confronting the need for cultural changes to integrate a new generation of cyber warriors.

The Navy has added mandatory cyber courses for all midshipmen, and the first class of cyber operations majors graduated in 2016. In recent years, the Army has created the Army Cyber Institute, the Army Cyber Center of Excellence and a cyber leader development program that involves cyber clubs, competitions and summer programs with industry.

And the Air Force recently launched CyberWorx, a new cyber innovation center at the Air Force Academy that includes courses and one-week "cyber sprints" that are private-public partnerships designed to solve operational problems.

Col. Jeff Collins, the director of CyberWorx, told FCW at the JSA Cybersecurity Summit in Annapolis that the program is designed to help educate all cadets from all different majors in human-centered approaches to problem solving.

"All of them have to understand technology, and how you integrate technology into the mission that you are trying to do," he said. "And all of them need to understand this better way of partnering with industry, this better way of solving problems."

The courses are focused more on management than technology in order to help future airmen navigate military structures and better link information technology and operational technology and to leverage industry.

Collins said the Air Force is working on incorporating more innovation education into the entire four-year program for cadets.

At the same time, he said the one-week sprint programs are focused on bringing in mid-level officers to help drive a culture change in the service that recognizes the value of new airmen and innovative thinking. 

"One of the areas we end up talking about with the cadets is about how as a young person... your bosses may not be receptive to your ideas, so what kind of approaches do you take for that," said Collins.

He said most senior generals recognize that "the 19-year old airman might have the best idea and so we have to able to be flat, listen. But I'm not sure that we have processes in place to enable that, and we certainly don't have an acquisition system that is ready to rapidly deliver the idea of a 19-year old to the whole bureaucracy."

Collins said that he worried the Air Force culture is likely to "crush" young cyber officers, and stressed the importance of building a beachhead to protect those who follow.

Col. Carlos Vega, chief of outreach for the Army Cyber Institute, said integrating new cyber warriors into the existing military culture and bureaucracy is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole.

"We're not just looking at the soldier that's being trained, we're looking at the organizational structure that's going to receive these soldiers," he said. "Often times, they'll come into a new command with this new set of skills that is very unfamiliar and the commander doesn't know how to use that."

"Your ability to code, your ability to think innovatively about some of these problems in cyber don't necessarily transcend to some of the things that we value in our traditional culture," he said.

That traditional culture is based around people and leadership and the Army is still trying to define the culture of cyber operators, many of whom would prefer to stay up late coding rather than go to the gym.

Vega said the Army is working to create positions specifically for young cyber warriors that will take full advantage of their skills, which will incentivize them to stay in the service for the long term.

Vega pointed to Army disciplines like special operations, aviation and bands that have different sets of requirements for soldiers and officers, allowing them to spend all their time honing their expertise and to stay in those fields for their entire careers.

"Are we ready to give that kind of specialization to the cyber soldier?" he asked.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.

Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.

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