Amid a global competition for cyber experts, one Air Force wing is looking at new and different ways to recruit and retain service members with the right know-how.
Attracting and maintaining top talent is becoming even more critical as the Air Force must provide six additional cyber mission force teams on behalf of U.S. Cyber Command.
“I would anticipate CMF growth, continuing through the years. We know we probably don’t have the capacity [that] we likely really need,” Col. Sean Kern, commander of 67th Cyberspace Wing, told DefenseScoop in a December interview.
The cyber mission force began building in 2012, with an end goal of 133 teams. The Department of Defense did not add to that number for several years after those groups reached full operational capability in 2018. Starting with the fiscal 2022 budget, Cybercom was authorized funding to augment the CMF, which consists of the offensive, defensive and support teams that the military branches provide to the command to conduct cyber operations. Now, the plan is to increase the capacity to 147 teams over the next five years or so.
The six additional Air Force teams —a total of 264 airmen spanning two offensive teams, two defensive teams and two support teams — that will be added to the CMF, will be built with a phased approach. The first three will start forming in 2024. They’re scheduled to reach initial operational capability 18 months after establishment and full operational capability 18 months after IOC — setting them up to be fully ready by 2027. The next slate of teams will begin building in 2025, with the expectation that they’ll be fully ready by 2028.
“Imagine already presenting, trying to present 1,715 [personnel and] add 264 in a pretty difficult mission area to bring talent into,” Kern said of his position right now.
However, officials across the DOD have consistently maintained that recruiting new talent for the cyber mission force is not the main problem — it’s retention. With lucrative pay opportunities in the private sector, it has been a struggle to keep the experts the military has spent millions of dollars and several years to train.
Kern is looking at retention in two ways: pay structure and force design.
He noted that in recent years, Congress’ annual defense policy bills authorized a variety of new authorities that officials in the wing sought to take advantage of such as selected reenlistment bonuses, special duty assignment pay and cyber assignment incentive pay.
“You’ll never meet the compensation that the commercial industry can provide. Never meet it. I don’t know that our airmen need us to meet that. I think what they need is something equitable that they can have the quality of life that they and their families deserve and do missions that only they can do in the DOD,” Kern said. “I think when there’s too much of a disparity between the salary, but you can only do this mission here at the DOD, [it] doesn’t quite play well. But it starts to make more sense when you even that out. When I mention that to our airmen when we just traveled recently, I got a lot of head nods. They’re like, ‘Yeah, you can get us in the range, we’re not looking for equity, we’re looking for fair [pay] given what we do.’ And you put that whole package together, then it starts looking much better.”
From a force design standpoint, Air Force officials are also starting to look more to the civilian ranks to help fill uniformed positions — something the other services are beginning to examine as well.
“If you can’t keep them in the active duty, the traditional model is, ‘Hey, well, can we retain them in the Reserve or the Guard?’ I think there is a complementary model, which would be: can you retain [them] in the civilian workforce?” Kern said. “We’re really looking at work roles that are predominantly uniformed and saying, ‘Hey, is there a potential to build in a civilian portion of the workforce, especially at the senior and master proficiency level?’”
One of the benefits of having a civilian pool of personnel to tap into is greater flexibility in duty stations. Unlike their uniformed counterparts, who typically only stay in particular work roles for a few years and frequently move, civilians can remain at a duty station in the same field for the duration of their careers, allowing them to gain significant expertise in their subject matter, missions and personnel.
Kern called this the NSA model, where the agency is made up primarily of a civilian workforce that stays put and has numerous opportunities for upskilling.
“I think you could capture a senior proficiency, uniformed airmen and make them a senior proficiency civilian and then grow them into master. Or maybe you even have a master in uniform and then boom, they become a master civilian,” he said.
The one caveat to relying on civilian personnel is they can’t be so-called trigger pullers under the laws of war, meaning they can’t be the ones to actually execute military operations. But, according to Kern, the goal should be to get them to be reservists or guardsmen.
“If you go into crisis or conflict, you’re surging and you’re probably putting those civilians on orders if they’re in the Reserve and Guard. And now all of a sudden, they do get to conduct full, traditional military activities. It’s a win-win,” he said.
Officials are also exploring the potential benefits of a blended retirement system.
“Our traditional model of like what a career looks like, could be completely different for us in the cyber mission force. And we should 100% be exploring those options,” Kern said. “With blended retirement, we get anxious — like, they can leave anytime and still take something with them. My answer is: I’m not nervous about that at all, if I can give them a really great reason to become a civilian. I even have it up on my whiteboard in my office that they start enlisted, they go through cyber direct commission program, they do their commission for a while and then they eventually become a civilian.”
Attracting personnel — and the right talent in particular — is a major challenge for the military writ large.
Kern said his boss, commander of 16th Air Force/Air Forces Cyber Lt. Gen. Kevin Kennedy, has charged the team to figure out what a cyber mission force recruiting pipeline could look like. Generally, the best cyber recruits — and best cyber operators once in uniform — are typically the people that have a natural interest in technology and pursue it as a hobby even in their free time.
According to Kern, one of the main areas of interest is increasing community engagement to help build relationships with local organizations and discover talent at younger ages. Some examples include the CyberPatriot program and cultivating connections with schools.
“The real rich target to me, and I told my recruiting team … what you want to find is that high school that has a junior ROTC, that puts in a junior ROTC CyberPatriot team that we can coach. Because they already have a predilection for service, they already have a predilection for cyberspace operations. Now, we just have to help them connect the dots for a really terrific professional future,” he said.