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Research Questions

  1. What are the current views on what defines a high-quality cyber officer?
  2. What are the perceived drivers of attraction to and retention in the career field?
  3. What are the perceived sources of dissatisfaction in the field?
  4. What might impact the retention and recruiting of cyber officers down the road?
  5. What efforts might the Air Force take to help recruit and retain cyber talent?

Cybersecurity is one of the most serious security challenges the United States faces. Information networks are central to the functioning of all major weapons systems and critical to day-to-day operations in the Air Force. Offensive cyber capabilities are also central to the Air Force mission.

While many factors ultimately contribute to mission success in these cyberspace domains, one area that directly impacts the Air Force's ability to achieve its cyber mission is its officer workforce, and many are concerned with the current health and future state of that workforce.

The Air Force is facing a large shortage of field grade cyberspace operations officers, in the near and long term, raising concerns about retention now and in the future. In addition, the Air Force may face stiff competition from the private sector in attracting and retaining top cyber talent. Finally, because many receive highly technical training from the Air Force that further increases their marketability, the Air Force is concerned it may lose talented personnel to the private sector.

To gain insights into key drivers for attracting and retaining cyberspace operations officers and essential characteristics of high-performing personnel, the authors review what is already known about retention issues facing the career field, summarize research on the domestic and military cyber workforces, and conduct interviews with a wide cross-section of individuals in the Air Force and the private sector. The authors ascertain sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction that might affect retention and recruiting and make recommendations for how to address them.

Key Findings

Research and workforce interviews suggest several knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) needed in officers

  • Interviewees cited technical expertise, strong leadership, "warfighting mind-set," critical thinking, and communication skills.
  • Interviewees' opinions were mixed on the ideal educational degree background for cyber recruits.
  • There are potential differences in the KSAOs needed in private-sector versus military cyber workers.

Workforce views provide insights into possible drivers of retention and recruiting, with many comments repeated across multiple interviews

  • Cyber officers often want to do technical work for longer in their career.
  • There is a perceived lack of clarity in the vision for the workforce and the cyber enterprise that is hindering the mission and morale.
  • Assignments to offensive and defensive cyber operations 17S positions are typically viewed as more attractive than 17D positions, which focus on building, maintaining, and supporting information networks, but few such assignments are available.
  • Retention of personnel with 17S experience may be a concern, especially if they fear being shifted away from 17S assignments.
  • There is a perceived mismatch between training and (1) the skill levels of people completing it, (2) the type of work people will be doing, and (3) the practical day-to-day procedural information needed in the field.
  • Critical technical acumen may be atrophying as a result of not allowing cyber professionals to stay in technical roles or not providing adequate continuation training.
  • The cyber mission is inadequately resourced; acquisition and decisionmaking processes are not agile enough to address the cyber enterprise's needs.


  • Consider formally managing the cyber officer 17D and 17S positions as distinct career fields.
  • Create opportunities for cyber officers to pursue technical depth.
  • Continue to prioritize technical backgrounds (STEM degrees and computer science backgrounds) in accessions, with pathways for candidates without those backgrounds to demonstrate potential in other ways (through cyber expertise, experience, or cognitive aptitudes and interests).
  • Closely monitor retention of personnel in both 17S and 17D assignments and be prepared to use the full spectrum of retention tools to help address field-grade officer shortfalls that are likely to continue, at least in the near term.
  • Ensure sufficient agility in cyber training, tactics, and acquisition.
  • Improve training and development of cyber personnel at all levels in such concepts as warfighting, the mission, strategic thinking, and operational planning.
  • Establish and communicate a strategic vision for the career field and link it to the tactical-level work.
  • Establish a forum through which to collect innovative ideas for managing the cyber career field from the workforce itself.
  • Establish enterprise-wide and forward-thinking approaches to better facilitate the cyber mission (e.g., simulations for training, consistent technology across the enterprise, agile acquisition approaches, adoption of cutting edge technology, or keeping pace with technology in the private sector).
  • Explore recruiting and retention challenges in the Air Force enlisted and civilian cyber communities.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by Maj Gen Patrick C. Higby (SAF/CIO A6S), director of cyberspace strategy and policy for the Office of Information Dominance and chief information officer for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, and conducted by the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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