The Pentagon plans a massive expansion of the joint U.S. Cyber Command, potentially creating a rare pocket of job growth for troops in a force otherwise constrained by budget cuts.
Incentive pays may be needed, experts say, to recruit, train and retain the troops, who would have specialized skills.
The plan calls for expanding the current command of about 900 by adding several thousand more billets, according to Defense Department officials familiar with the plan. The exact number has not been finalized, officials said.
About 80 percent of those slots will be for service members and 20 percent for civilians, said Gen. William Shelton, chief of the Air Force Space Command.
The expansion will run from 2014 through 2016, and top Pentagon officials are developing plans for training and assigning troops to those joint billets, Shelton said.
The jobs will likely be filled with enlisted troops and officers from both the active and reserve components, experts say.
Competition will be tough because the cyber field is growing in the military and offers lucrative skills that merit high pay in the civilian job market.
“People are going to fight for these jobs,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a private school that trains cybersecurity experts for the military and private businesses.
“This wouldn't have worked just a few years ago, because no one thought there were great careers in cyber,” Paller said. “That has changed.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeatedly has warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” and said the country's national security, economy and public infrastructure are vulnerable to attacks from other countries, terrorists and rogue computer hackers. He urged that cyber capabilities be protected from any budget cuts on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are waging an internal debate about the role and mission of Cyber Command, established
in 2009 under U.S. Strategic Command.
The variety of threats requires different capabilities and troops with unique skills. Defensive missions require protecting Pentagon computer networks from attack and preparing a potential response to a broad assault on domestic civilian networks that could disable power grids or cripple financial systems.
The Defense Department also is ramping up offensive capabilities that could be used to attack networks used by foreign governments or terrorist groups - offensive measures that could be coordinated with traditional military operations, such as airstrikes or special operations missions.
But recruiting, training and retaining a force with those skills will be a challenge.
“We are going to have to offer large bonuses to build the kind of force that we need,” said Bill Hatch, a military manpower and personnel expert who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
That also may involve hefty incentive pays like those offered to doctors or aviators, who often are required to sign extended service agreements to justify the military’s upfront investment in training costs.
Experts say the cyber training pipeline ultimately may come to look a lot like today's aviation programs, which require many months of school and develop increasingly specialized skills.
The military's largest cyberwarfare school, the Air Force's 39th Information Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., has simulators on which students conduct real-time operations against cyber attacks.
The services are internally debating the best way to cultivate cyber skills. In some cases, they bring in recruits who already have related skills. Some troops are also starting to transfer into cyberwarfare-related jobs. And the services are integrating cyber skills into training programs for related career fields, such as communications, information technology and logistics.
To meet the expanded demand, the services may scour their current force for existing skills.
“I think they are going to run competitions and talent searches among all the enlisted members and officers to find the people who have natural talent for this - they play with computers, they love computers and they have lots of little skills,” Paller said.
The reserve components also may provide a significant slice of the Pentagon's cyber capabilities. Reserve advocates say part-time troops would be ideal for the cyber field because they get training and experience from the private sector.
Cyber jobs also may be well-suited for telecommuting, giving reservists added flexibility to fulfill their military commitment from home or a civilian office.
For now, Cyber Command is looking for “hunters and tool builders” with practical skills, Paller said. That marks a cultural shift away from the bureaucratic operators who have filled some of DoD's cyber offices.
“It turns out that we have too many people who know how to talk about it and can write reports about it. But if you put them in front of a machine that's infected, they wouldn't have a clue what to do,” Paller said.