DoD Looks Within to Build Cyber Force

Retraining Military Personnel to Become Security Specialists
DoD Looks Within to Build Cyber Force
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Petty Officer First Class Chase Hardison is the future face of the cyberdefenders at the U.S. Cyber Command, the military organization charged with defending Defense Department networks and the nation's critical infrastructure.

See Also: How to Leverage Hacking Competitions as an Educational and Recruitment Tool

In 2010, Hardison was serving on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, tending to turbines and generators, when the then-machinist's mate, and his new wife Sara, decided he should change jobs if he wanted to stay in the Navy. He signed up for a cyber course in Pensacola, Fla., and graduated second in his class, missing the No. 1 slot by only four one-hundredths of a point.

Fast-forward four years: Hardison is an interactive operator at Cybercom in Fort Meade, Md. And the military is looking for many more individuals like him to become cyberwarriors.

"To continue recruiting and retaining talent like Petty Officer Hardison, we must build rewarding, long-term cyber career paths," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a speech March 28 during ceremonies honoring Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who's retiring as Cybercom commander and director of the National Security Agency (see Obama Taps Navy Admiral as NSA Director).

"Our military must enable our people to re-invent themselves for life in and beyond their service," Hagel said. "That is a proud tradition of our armed forces. It is also how we shape a modern, cutting-edge military that outmatches the most advanced adversaries."

The 4-year-old Cybercom employs 1,800 professionals, but expects to grow to 6,000 employees by 2016, with many coming from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and, like, Hardison, the Navy.

Recruiting and Training

Recruiting and training cyberpersonnel is a top priority for Cybercom, says a senior Defense Department official, who - speaking on background - briefed the media on Hagel's speech. "Without highly skilled, elite cyber-operators, we're not going to accomplish all the things we want to do, and we spent a lot of time over the past few years figuring out what that model would be."

The senior official acknowledges that many experts believe DoD must reach outside of government to find qualified cyber-experts. And, he says there are a number of cybersecurity professionals willing to sacrifice 6-figure salaries to work for Cybercom and the National Security Agency because they believe in their missions and service in America.

"But quite honestly, the way we're going to be most successful is using people from within the force and giving them the training, and reforming and changing the way the force is composed in a very personal way," he says.

Hardison, as a machinist's mate, wasn't among the most highly skilled enlistees in the military workforce. "But he had the aptitude, and more importantly, he had the desire to re-invent himself and he is now one of the most elite cyber-operators within Cybercom," the DoD official says.

The official says it's clearly feasible to "train up" military personnel to be cyber-experts.

"We now have processes in place where they will identify people who have the right mix of aptitude, fire in the belly and desire to re-invent themselves and put them through a training pipeline that ends up resulting in for us having highly trained operators. ... We've already seen hundreds of cases in which there were people who didn't know anything about cyber at all; we re-invented them [so] they are part of the elite force."

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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