How the Military Might Expand Its Cyber Skills


Apr 22, 2021

Cyber warfare operators monitor cyber attacks at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, MD, December 2, 2017, photo by J.M. Eddins Jr./U.S. Air Force

Cyber warfare operators monitor cyber attacks at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, MD, December 2, 2017

Photo by J.M. Eddins Jr./U.S. Air Force

As software has become an ever more integral part of life, national security experts have come to recognize that the U.S. military will need to improve its software fluency if it wants to remain dominant on the battlefields of the future. Already, one of the first priorities of the Biden administration has been to enhance its efforts to attract cyber, technology, and STEM knowledge into the national security workforce so it is prepared for the challenges of tomorrow. Yet merely attracting additional civilian technical experts may not be enough.

As history has demonstrated, military innovation during peacetime is most successful when senior military officers who have earned the respect of their peers recognize the potential for a major disruption in the way war is fought. In the past, these senior personnel have established new promotion pathways to cultivate younger officers more fluent in these new technologies, enabling them to fill roles critical to the evolution of novel weapon systems and military doctrines that depend upon the fresh advancements. Without this, innovators have struggled to be promoted over other officers who remain tied to the established way of doing things, and they have quickly left military service for alternative careers where their talents were better appreciated. If the U.S. military is to succeed at leveraging the full power of the cyber domain, it could strive to avoid this fate.

When considering how to infuse cyber skills into its officer corps, the Department of Defense (DoD) can draw from lessons learned the first time it extended combat into a new domain of warfare. The arrival of aircraft onto the battlefields of World War I confronted both the Army and the Navy with a significant disruption to their traditional ways of war. In each case, none of the senior commanders in the service had any practical experience with aviation. While some enthusiastic junior officers raved about how the airplane would dominate battlefields of the future, more conventional officers scoffed at the limited capabilities of aircraft and doubted that the technology would ever be as transformational as its advocates boasted. With limited budgets and a Congress demanding a peace dividend from the end of the Great War, each service faced difficult decisions about how to allocate its funding and officer billets. The two organizations ultimately took very different paths with opposite results.

Military innovation during peacetime is most successful when senior military officers who have earned the respect of their peers recognize the potential for a major disruption in the way war is fought.

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The post-war leadership of the Army believed that its future lay with large numbers of well-trained and motivated soldiers. Most regarded efforts to invest in mechanization through improving armored vehicles and aircraft as diverting funds away from maintaining an Army of the necessary size and competence to fight and win the next major war. This had the effect of leading some top generals to become downright dismissive of any supposed revolutionary potential of new technologies. As the head of the Cavalry branch put it: “When better roller skates are made, Cavalry horses will wear them.” While some officers believed aviation had some value in supplementing the existing combat arms, most remained parochially invested in the interests of their particular branch of the Army and the way of warfare they had become accustomed to.

At the same time, aviation advocates in the Army came to view its leadership as an obstacle to their ambitions. Aviators worked to exclude officers they felt had insufficient technical knowledge from involvement in the evolution of aviation doctrine. In particular, army aviators demanded that field grade officers in the Air Service must be qualified pilots. Despite a shortage of qualified individuals, they further insisted that vacant command positions be filled only through internal promotions of aviators as opposed to bringing officers from other branches into aviation. It was considered impossible to teach mid-career officers—those ranked major or above—how to fly an aircraft; they were simply unable to comprehend the complexities of the technology. This chasm resulted in aviators feeling increasingly unappreciated by the senior generals in charge of their service. By the 1930s, the most influential officers in the Air Service fervently believed that they needed to separate from the Army as quickly as possible to develop aviation into a war-winning capability.

In the Navy, senior leadership took a different approach. Aviation advocates such as Admiral William Moffett worked to make aviation an attractive career for the best and brightest individuals in the service in order to fully develop its potential within the Navy. First, they ensured that pilots had career paths that ultimately led to command of a ship at sea—always the ultimate measure of success in any navy. Second, the Navy created a five-week course that allowed mid-career and senior officers to qualify as naval aviation observers. Although few of these senior officers would spend the remainder of their career in the air, the course was intended to introduce them to the junior officers most fluent in the new technology, to publicly identify them with the aviation branch, and to give them a basic understanding of the requirements of naval aviation. Some of the Navy's most influential aviation advocates, including Admiral Moffett himself, entered the aviation fraternity through this mechanism. Although junior officers in the Navy had their own complaints about the conservatism of “battleship admirals,” they believed the Navy valued the potential of aviation and they could rely on numerous higher-ranking officers to act as their mentors and champions.

The DoD has already recognized the urgency of improving the cyber skillsets of its personnel and leadership. The 2018 DoD Cyber Strategy believed that “leaders and their staffs need to be 'cyber fluent' so they can fully understand the cybersecurity implications of their decisions and are positioned to identify opportunities to leverage the cyberspace domain to gain strategic, operational, and tactical advantages.” Similarly, innovative services like the Air Force have sought to improve their digital proficiency by encouraging airmen to learn computer languages just as they previously encouraged them to learn foreign languages. However, emphasizing these skillsets may not be the best way to teach officers and leaders in the DoD how to interface with cyber specialists. Software engineering and cybersecurity are each complicated and detailed disciplines; an introductory course lasting a few weeks will barely scratch the surface of the knowledge needed to be truly proficient in either. Worse, receiving this introduction will do relatively little to prepare an individual to understand more advanced concepts and programming techniques. Much as in foreign languages, a beginner will have no way to comprehend vocabulary and grammar from lessons they have not yet been taught.

The DoD could encourage its future leaders to learn the skills of product management.

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Instead, the DoD could encourage its future leaders to learn the skills of a different technical discipline: product management. In technology companies, product managers focus on discovering how to delight customers. They work to unearth not just the problems that their customers think they have but dive deeper to understand the true need users are trying to satisfy and the best ways that could be delivered to them. They then guide teams of software developers to iteratively create, test, and improve potential solutions. When limited time and resources inevitably force teams to decide between competing priorities, it is the product manager who decides which capabilities are the most essential and which can be deferred to a future date. Just as importantly, product managers act as the bridge between their engineers and the rest of their organization. That means they must learn to effectively communicate with both technical and nontechnical audiences at a variety of levels. In one meeting, they may have to convince a partner engineering team to add a feature their work depends on; in the next, they may have to convince the compliance team that their work will satisfy all existing policies and procedures; after that, they may have to describe the value of their work to the organization's leadership and make the case for continued investment in their effort. Honing these types of skills would benefit most officers more than completing an introductory programming lesson.

To encourage military officers to acquire skills in product management, the DoD might consider several incentives. First, the military could make a certification in product management a board precept for advancement to the O4 or O5 rank for some combat specialties. For example, surface warfare officers in the Navy have the responsibility for protecting carrier groups from enemy submarines and missiles. Detecting and destroying these adversaries is highly dependent on software and automation. Thus, mid-career surface warfare officers might be well placed to leverage these new skills and concepts. Similarly, the artillery branch in the Army is highly dependent on software to deliver precision firepower on targets identified by far-off sensor platforms. Fire direction officers and brigade fires effects officers might particularly benefit from looking at the world with a product-centric view. While other military specializations such as logistics or intelligence could also benefit from acquiring these skills, excluding the combat branches from these requirements entirely would largely confine this knowledge to individuals likely to exit the service prior to achieving positions of influence.

Additionally, the DoD could encourage officers to develop product management skills during their disassociated tours. The military already has some individuals embedded at technology companies such as Microsoft or Amazon in order to learn more about their business practices. It could increase the number of billets available for these roles to broaden the number of partner companies it can engage with. It could also raise the prestige of these types of assignments in order to encourage ambitious officers to seek them out.

Finally, the military could create opportunities for officers with product management certifications to put their knowledge into practice. Many companies have internal tech accelerators that use product managers to explore areas identified by senior leadership. Individuals assigned to accelerators focus on discovering the main need or business problem in the area. They then rapidly test a series of prototype solutions to gather data about how to best deliver a valuable product to the end users. Finally, they transition this knowledge to a fully staffed development team, which will expand the prototype into a completed software application. Lab environments give individuals with product knowledge many opportunities to exercise their skills within a short timeframe. In the commercial world, individuals rarely remain assigned to a lab role for more than a year or two—a timeframe that could easily fit into the typical military rotation schedule.

Ensuring that future leaders in the military develop cyber skills and the ability to interface with technical experts may be increasingly important to everything the DoD does.

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Regardless of the mechanism chosen, ensuring that future leaders in the military develop cyber skills and the ability to interface with technical experts may be increasingly important to everything the DoD does. Most future weapon systems will depend on software to function effectively and perfecting the human-machine interface powering these weapons could be critical to success on the battlefield. Just as importantly, every major business process within the Pentagon depends on software. Improving and modernizing these processes could depend on having uniformed leadership that can effectively lead transformation efforts that will primarily be expressed through software. The most critical skills for a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs might well be the ability to understand how cyber can empower his or her entire organization and how they can ensure those potential cyber capabilities actually become reality.

James Ryseff is a technical policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.