The Marine Corps Wants to Make Cyber More Like Special Ops

A U.S. Marine assigned to the Cyber Security Technician course, Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, work on an assignment at Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms, Calif., March 15, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Jose Villalobosrocha)
A U.S. Marine assigned to the Cyber Security Technician course, Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, work on an assignment at Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms, Calif., March 15, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Jose Villalobosrocha)

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, Southwest Asia -- It's not the kind of offer you'd expect the commandant of the Marine Corps to make.

"Anybody in here a hacker?" Gen. Robert Neller asked, looking around the basketball court at Marines crowded into a semi-circle, as afternoon sunlight streamed in. "If you are, come see me, because I'll give you a re-enlistment bonus. I'm serious. I'm looking for people who know how to do that."

No hands go up, but the offer stands, and the Marines know Neller will be back later that evening for one-on-one conversations.

Marine leaders have been vocal about their desire to build more cyber capabilities into the force.

An expected 1,000-Marine increase built into the Fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act is earmarked for the cyber and electronic warfare communities and other skilled specialties.

And Neller, eyeing a complex future fight in which network jamming may be more important than artillery firepower, wants even more.

In a series of conversations with Marines during visits to various deployed units in late December, he laid out a way forward for the Marine Corps that would ensure the service makes the most of these highly trained, specialized Marines and canvasses the population for all available talent.

"I think it's going to be, MarForCyber is going to be like going to [U.S. Special Operations Command]," Neller said. "Once you're in, you never leave; that's your field."

For these Marines, many of whom will be recruited for the specialty, tours that require time away from the primary duty, such as drill instructor or recruiter, won't be part of the career path, he said.

And prospective Marines who want to work in the cyber field won't have to contend with the capricious nature of the military occupational specialty assignment process. Neller wants them to be able to get a contract for the field, particularly if they're graduating college with a relevant degree.

"They'll say, 'I want to do this,' and as long as they make it through and pass all the tests, that's what they're going to do," he said.

The Marine Corps is going to step up its recruiting efforts for fields such as cyber as well, Neller said.

He compared future recruitment for cyber to current recruiting campaigns for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, where screeners make visits to bases around the country to assess Marines from any specialty who meet qualifications.

There are other ideas that have been floated for growing the elite cyber force. A cyber-only military occupational specialty remains on the table, but has yet to be made reality.

Some have also proposed a "direct commission" model in which cyber professionals are brought into the service without having to go through entry-level training prerequisites.

On the trip, Neller said this option didn't sit quite right with him; he worries it would devalue the coveted Eagle, Globe and Anchor that Marines wear with pride.

The biggest unsolved challenge, though, is how to compensate troops adequately in a profession that regularly earns six figures in the civilian world.

Neller said the service is still working to find ways not only to bring people in, but also to convince them to stay for a career.

"We are far and away the youngest force, far and away the lowest number of officers to enlisted. The Marine Corps of the future, we're going to get a little bit older. It takes longer to grow these people," Neller said. "So there's a business side ... We've got a way ahead of us here."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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