Cover: The Other Quiet Professionals

The Other Quiet Professionals

Lessons for Future Cyber Forces from the Evolution of Special Forces

Published Oct 3, 2014

by Christopher Paul, Isaac R. Porche III, Elliot Axelband


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Research Questions

  1. What lessons do the history and development of U.S. special operations forces and U.S. Special Operations Command hold for the contemporary cyber force?
  2. How can U.S. Cyber Command organize to ensure that needed cyber capabilities are acquired rapidly and efficiently?
  3. What types of authorities will U.S. Cyber Command require to ensure that joint, service, and warfighter needs are met?

With the establishment of U.S. Cyber Command in 2010, the cyber force is gaining visibility and authority, but challenges remain, particularly in the areas of acquisition and personnel recruitment and career progression. A review of commonalities, similarities, and differences between the still-nascent U.S. cyber force and early U.S. special operations forces, conducted in 2010, offers salient lessons for the future direction of U.S. cyber forces. Although U.S. special operations forces (SOF) have a long and storied history and now represent a mature, long-standing capability, they struggled in the 1970s and 1980s before winning an institutional champion and joint home in the form of U.S. Special Operations Command. U.S. cyber forces similarly represent a new but critical set of military capabilities. Both SOF and cyber forces are, at their operating core, small teams of highly skilled specialists, and both communities value skilled personnel above all else. Irregular warfare and SOF doctrine lagged operational activities, and the same is true of the cyber force. Early SOF, like the contemporary cyber force, lacked organizational cohesion, a unified development strategy, and institutionalized training. Perhaps most importantly, the capabilities of both forces have traditionally been inadequate to meet demand. The analogy holds for issues of acquisition, the two forces' relationship with the conventional military, their applicability across the spectrum of combat, and their historic need for a strong advocate for reform. The analogy is not perfect, however. In terms of core capabilities, force accession, and tradition, the forces are also very different. But even these differences offer fundamental lessons for both the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Army with regard to the future and potential of the cyber force.

Key Findings

The Experiences of U.S. Special Operations Forces Offer Valuable Lessons for the Nascent U.S. Cyber Force

  • The history of U.S. special operations force evolution, culminating in the 1986 establishment of U.S. Special Operations Command, has much to offer by way of lessons for the contemporary cyber force, including U.S. Army cyber forces.
  • An analogy can be made between the special operations and cyber communities, but it is important to assess their differences as well as their commonalities and similarities.
  • Like U.S. special operations forces prior to the establishment of U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. cyber forces need advocacy and a joint organizational home.

U.S. Cyber Forces Also Have a Unique Set of Needs and Requirements

  • Although it is much more dependent than early SOF on technical acquisition choices at the joint force level, the cyber force also needs better funding support and a rapid acquisition capability.
  • In contrast to U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Cyber Command needs nontraditional personnel authorities, particularly to facilitate the recruitment of highly skilled personnel from the private sector.


  • The U.S. Department of Defense should empower U.S. Cyber Command as the joint home for the cyber community.
  • The U.S. Army should support U.S. Cyber Command as the lead force coordinator and empower U.S. Army Cyber Command to develop clear career trajectories for Army cyber forces.
  • It is critical for the Army to recognize the "precarious value" of the cyber force and provide ample support for these capabilities. For this reason, it is important to provide the Army's cyber force with nontraditional authorities.
  • Cyber forces need a rapid and flexible ability to acquire cyber-specific tools. It could be modeled on the U.S. Special Operations Command rapid acquisition approach.

Research conducted by

The research was conducted within RAND Arroyo Center's Force Development and Technology program. RAND Arroyo Center, part of the RAND Corporation, is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the U.S. Army.

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