Army looks to fast-track cyber talent into service

The Army has a possible solution to solve its need for more cyber forces – training private sector techies to serve as lieutenants in cyber operations.

U.S. Army Cyber Command launched a pilot program to recruit tech workers with academic and applied technical experience into its Cyber Direct Commissioning Program and develop tools and devices for the Cyber Mission Force.

The program, which was officially authorized Nov. 27, will put selected applicants through a total of 16 weeks of training before being assigned to technical roles in 14 different skill areas currently lacking in the cyber force, such as development and software operations, security engineers, software designers and engineers, and product managers.

The direct commissioning program pilot is scheduled to run for five years, and bring on five officers per year to report at either Ft. Meade, Md., or Ft. Gordon, Ga., Army Cyber Commander Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone said during a media roundtable Tuesday.

The program is a fast-track process that broadens some of the Army's requirements and removes barriers to entry. For example, applicants must be under 41 compared to 32 for OCS, and can skip the traditional basic and combat training requirements, but they must be able to pass a physical and meet basic fitness standards.

It's a somewhat expedited form of the Army's Officer Candidate School, which requires nine weeks of basic training, 12 weeks of tactical and combat training, but doesn't guarantee candidates placement in cyber operations.

Instead, applicants are sent to Ft. Sill for four weeks of direct commissioned officer training and 12 weeks of condensed cyber basic officer leader course, which is traditionally 37 weeks. Once selected for training following a successful interview, the applicants become first lieutenants in the Army Reserve and graduate to active-duty second lieutenants after completing the four-week direct commissioning course.

Maj. Gen. Patricia Frost, the cyber director for the Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, emphasized that applicants need to be ready to start building their tools from scratch.

"It is okay to be innovative and not have been successful. So bringing in an individual who has tried to be very innovative in this space and looking at capability development, that's why the interview is so important," Frost said. "It's not that [the applicant] has to have a patent or something…it's showing that potential and that drive and that energy to want to be comfortable with that blank sheet of paper."

Security clearance backlogs and actually luring tech workers from high-paying private industry jobs could be obstacles for operationalizing the Army pilot program.

Applicants must be able to obtain top secret clearances, something that Frost and Nakasone said is addressed during the interview process. But Nakasone and Frost stressed that successful applicants' clearances would be prioritized and expedited over the current security clearance backlog of more than 700,000 applications, making it possible for cyber officer candidates to report for duty in as little as four to five months from initial application.

"We don't want them sitting there in a backlog from a security clearance issue; we want to put them to work," Frost said. "That's why that interview up front is really critical to know they meet the qualifications."

Frost acknowledged the talent pool the Army was looking to pick from was small, saying only 29 percent of the U.S. population is fit to serve in the Army -- with the unique technical capabilities required for this program whittling down the pool from there. But the Army is betting the opportunity to fight the world's best hackers will be just what some tech workers need.

"I think the most important attraction is: If you want to go against the best in the world, come join us," Nakasone said. "Because you won't do that necessarily in another field." He added that some special pay considerations could be made, but that compensation won't be the main attraction.

"This is just a new way of doing business," he said.

Army Cyber is expected to convene its first board within the next month to begin selecting eligible applicants to go through the officer training, Nakasone said, adding that he anticipates having the first direct cyber commissioned class by February.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.

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