DOD keeps getting ‘out recruited’ for cyber talent, Shanahan says

Congress wants DOD to onboard more cyber warriors, but they're hard to keep around.

Congress wants more cyber warriors, but they're hard to hold onto, according to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Testifying May 8 on the 2020 defense budget before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Shanahan said he's happy to invest in more cyber scholarship programs, training ranges and red team capabilities, but keeping cyber specialists onboard is the real challenge.

"Our biggest challenge with the red teams is keeping the people," Shanahan said, "We get out-recruited."

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) suggested Shanahan and the Defense Department lean more on the National Guard, which has members who often work for tech companies full-time and serve on the weekends, to bolster cyber warrior capabilities.

During a May 1 House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) requested an update on DOD's cyber scholarship program's effectiveness. Shanahan didn't have a ready update but was confident that DOD should put more into it.

"The scholarship and the recruitment and the retainment of cyber professionals is probably the greatest skill challenge that we have in the department," Shanahan responded. "There aren't enough software engineers in the world, and there probably never will be. The skills that we've developed inside the department are world class, and the ability to recruit and retain -- in Cyber Command, within each of the services, the NSA --  is probably our biggest threat."

DOD has struggled, like the tech industry at large, to attract and retain cyber workers. Congress has previously pushed for more scholarships to encourage applicants.

For 2019, DOD had $17 million set aside for its cyber scholarship program, which is "designed to encourage the recruitment of the nation's top cyber talent and the retention of DOD personnel who have skills necessary to meet DOD's cyber requirements and help secure our nation against the threats to information systems and networks," DOD spokeswoman Elissa Smith told FCW via email. Some of 2019 funding, which sits in the research budget, is still available for use in 2020, she said.

Creating cyber warriors remains a top priority set by Cyber Command. Shanahan called the National Security Agency and Cyber Command a "jewel" for creating cyber warriors.

"Retention," he said, "really comes from how you treat your people, and [NSA Director and Cyber Commander Gen. Paul Nakasone] is a supreme leader in that regard."

DOD set aside nearly $10 billion for cybersecurity, network defenses and offensive operations. Shanahan said the boost in Cyber Command's budget in fiscal 2020 was needed to help invest in offensive cyber operations because deterrence is needed more than "building thicker walls."

"Just relying on someone to police it, doesn't give us the coverage that we need," Shanahan said.

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