Winning Tomorrow’s War Today: A Cyber Revolution in Personnel Management

By Brian Viola, Erica L. Fountain, and Michael C. Williams 

Editor’s note: The following article is a review of the Air Command and Staff College Professional Paper written by the authors. For a full text copy of the original paper, please email us 

A revolution in military affairs (RMA) is underway: information operations, network operations, electromagnetic operations and integrated Command, Control, Communications and Computer systems fused with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems (C4ISR) are the hallmarks of America’s warfighting dominance. Rapid technological changes permeate social, political, economic and military spheres, dramatically altering security environments. Leaders in the Department of Defense (DoD) must have the foresight to comprehend and adapt to a dynamic, continuously altered strategic landscape. Sustaining momentum through this RMA requires bold leadership to gauge the complex mix of tactical, organizational, doctrinal and technological innovations ahead and to lead the force in new conceptual approaches to warfare.

Cyberspace is the key terrain of the present RMA because it connects the space, air, land, sea, and human domains together, creating an integrated layer of joint-force effectiveness. Every component of America’s military force entrusts mission assurance to cyberspace. Denial, degradation, disruption, deception, and/or corruption of cyberspace key terrain (CKT) dangerously alters the strategic context and erodes US warfighting dominance. CKT enables low-cost adversarial strategies like cyberspace denial operations, espionage activities and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies, turning traditional mass and maneuver on its head. Counter to traditional warfighting doctrine, mass in cyberspace is disadvantageous, expanding the attack surface we present to our adversaries. Cyberspace leaders must recognize that while cyberspace multiplies joint force capabilities, adversaries will tenaciously pursue increasingly sophisticated and intense asymmetric cyberspace strategies. The functional management of the cyberspace officer career field must be updated to address the challenges associated with the strategic landscape of this environment.


Cyberspace is a domain characterized by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to store, modify, and exchange data via networked systems and associated physical infrastructures.” Unfortunately, “cyber” has become the 21st century buzzword and the DoD latched onto it with intense fervor. Wide-ranging use adds uncertainty, rather than clarity, to the dialogue. The one-size-fits-all use of “cyber” does not work. Similarly, the current career field is too broad to adequately manage cyberspace forces. Managing forces based on the functional principles of the domain would solve this problem. A 2007 report to Congress specified five core cyberspace capabilities: psychological operations, military deception, operations security, computer network operations, and electronic warfare (EW). Psychological operations and military deception are information operations functions, operations security and computer network operations are network operations functions, and EW is an electromagnetic operations function. Therefore, cyberspace human capital should have four functional areas: information operations, network operations, electromagnetic operations, and cyberspace maintenance.

Information operations are “[t]he relational framework [which] describes the application, integration and synchronization of [information related capabilities] IRCs to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of a [target audience] TA to create a desired effect to support achievement of an objective.” Network operations exploit the characteristics of the logical layer of cyberspace by denial, disruption, degradation, destruction, deception, manipulation and/or corruption of data or digital manipulation of infrastructure. Electromagnetic operations exploit the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS). Cyberspace maintenance includes functional operations that build, sustain, and standardize the CKT by providing the infrastructure for cyberspace operations and the networked. Dividing the career field into these functional areas addresses cyberspace doctrine while providing the fidelity necessary to build actionable cyberspace human capital plans.


A functional approach to managing the cyberforce career field overcomes many of the challenges faced by “operationalizing” this career field. Currently, the cyberforces use a capability-focused approach to addresses the symptoms ailing the cyberspace operations career field, but fails to address the long-term challenges posed by the domain. Functional force management actions focus on what capabilities are required for current and future mission sets and how to get there through force size considerations: talent development; corporate knowledge management; and removing barriers to the health of the force. Force management paves the way for cyberspace forces by mapping out milestones for leadership opportunity, management experience, warrior ethos development, and joint integration to build and sustain a relevant workforce. Functional force management functions are primarily accessions, training, and retention.


Building cyberspace human capital begins with gaining future talent. Cyberspace officers have the opportunity to solve complex problems, conduct novel operations, and defend the nation against technically sophisticated adversaries using cutting-edge technologies. Accession tools must be agile – to serve the interests of qualified graduates that possess both aptitude and affinity – and tailorable to shape accessions within a changing landscape. The following would significantly improve the influx of cyberspace talent:

  1. Improve nation-wide university educator understanding and opinion of the military by offering site-visits and partnering strategies to enhance recruitment efforts.
  2. To build a better junior force, recruiting efforts should focus on the 44 colleges the NSA designated as producing skills in information assurance, cyberspace research and network defense.
  3. Connect successful university alumni currently serving with current students to create a bond of shared heritage and open doors to those who may not have otherwise entered military service.
  4. Cyberforce scholarships should forecast the growth of core functional areas and require tailored concentration on areas of study, to adjust future capability shortfalls. (Roughly costing $4.2M annually.)
  5. The cyberforce should conduct an aptitude and affinity test to ensure baseline skills can be attained. An AFOQT-like test would determine a student’s desire to enter the cyberforce matches his/her aptitude.


Once the right talent is acquired, it must be retained. Retaining knowledge, skills, and experience of the cyberspace force is an imperative for successful cyberspace operations. Motivating Airmen to continue service is the most critical task in sustaining cyberforce human capital. Building a cyberspace officer requires similar time and financial investment as building a pilot. Competition with private industry and the commercial sector also make it difficult to retain cyberspace officers with STEM degrees and technical expertise. Despite the challenges in retaining cyberspace talent, there are numerous ways to alleviate stress on the career field:


  1. High performing cyberspace officers must participate in and contribute to technology boards, conventions, conferences and working groups. A selective USAF conference, modeled after CNEDEV, BlackHat, ShmooCon, CanSecWest, or DEFCON would send a strong message to cyberspace Airmen that their talents are valued while creating important corporate associations.
  2. Revise the typical promotion path to a dual-path construct, with either increased leadership responsibility or financial incentives for technical experts (Figure 1). Cyberspace Airmen, like pilots, must nurture proficiency through their first ten years of service. The 10-year milestone becomes the first opportunity for cyberspace officers to transition to positions that build the breadth necessary for traditional senior leadership roles. A cyberspace officer that chooses the technical track will have mission focused leadership opportunities like mission or crew commands. In order to financially bridge the divide between a traditional leadership track officer or industry, the USAF should incentivize the technical Airmen through a tiered system analogous to the civilian General Schedule system.
  3. The USAF must encourage crossflow opportunities driven by records, volunteers, and rigorous aptitude and affinity testing. For example, the Computer Network Operations Development Program (CNODP) is one of the DoD’s top programs for network operations development. Historically, developmental engineers compose roughly 50% of CNODP graduates and they excel compared to those with STEM degrees. Unfortunately, there is no path for the developmental engineer graduates to crossflow into cyber warfare, so 49% of them separate upon completion of their commitment.


Airmen are the most critical weapons in the cyberspace arsenal, so they must be developed to maintain our edge in current and future joint and USAF operations. Education and training facilitate the transition from one level of experience to the next and are critical to creating productive experiences in a cyberspace officer’s development. Education builds the foundation that prepares officers to deal with the unknown art of cyberspace operations and uncertain future challenges. Training provides cyberspace officers with proficiency on current practices.


Education is vitally important because it develops critical thought that enables creative solutions to new problems. If we assume technology and automation continue at the current pace, then a cyberforce with a solid STEM foundation is trainable to adapt to tomorrow’s challenges. Though the USAF’s realizes the value of STEM degrees for cyberspace officers, it is not enough. For example, mechanical engineering is not as applicable as computer or electrical engineering. Therefore, managing the education of accessions by functional area with course or concentration best prepares accessions for mission success.

The USAF mandates that 70% of the officers accessed into the cyberspace operations career field have an accredited STEM degree relating to Network Operations or Cyber Warfare Operations. The degree must be in: Computer Science, Computer/Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics, Industrial/Electromechanical Engineering, Computer Technology, Cyber Warfare, Mathematics, or Management Information Systems. While this is a step in the right direction, national trends in the number of Americans graduating with STEM degrees make it difficult to meet the mandate. The USAF must reverse this trend by deliberately growing its pool of engineers:

  1. The Air Force should require 70% of applicants to undergraduate pilot training (UPT) to have a STEM degrees. This prerequisite “provide[s] a first-order effect of an increase in the number of officer candidates pursuing engineering degrees with the goal of securing pilots, increasing the consequently the number of nonrated officers with [STEM] degrees.”
  2. Formalize the direct accession to Air Force Information and Technology (AFIT) Master’s program for cyberspace, designating quotas for ROTC and USAFA upon commissioning. This would ensure degrees are tailored to the targeted functional areas.
  3. When the mandatory target accession rate cannot be met, 30% of accessions may have non-STEM or non-cyberspace-related STEM degrees. To ensure the cyberspace workforce has the appropriate knowledge, pre-requisite testing should be used prior to initial skills training (IST),


The career field should focus on training only after providing education in key areas. While education prepares cyberspace professionals for the future, training addresses the issues currently confronting the USAF. The USAF must take educated thinkers and weaponize them via an operational training pipeline.

Undergraduate Cyberspace Training (UCT) baselines accessions through a combination of training and education. Much of the six-month course trains students on tactical communications, network fundamentals, ethics and traditional communication systems. The rest provides students with a broad overview on cyberspace operations and the different underlying skillsets. Graduates of UCT are expected to become cyberspace operators. However, because UCT must bring students with varying educational backgrounds to the same level, it cannot provide in-depth technical knowledge and skill sets. To better prepare for the asymmetric environment, UCT training tasks and objectives should be functionally aligned under Network Operations, Electromagnetic Operations, Information Operations and Cyberspace Maintenance. UCT would better meet its objectives and provide graduates that are nearly mission-qualified by:

1) Sending accessions to UCT only if they have a STEM background or pass an aptitude/affinity test.

2) Requiring UCT students to take an initial assessment to determine if they can accelerate through training.

3) Changing the UCT construct. The first four months would baseline students, and the last two months would centralize and standardize Initial Qualification Training focused on job-specific tasks, allowing quicker Mission Qualification Training.

The USAF must continue to provide the means to practice hard-won perishable technical skills. There are many available avenues to allocate resources provide this competence:

  1. Encourage cyberspace officers to personally participate in competitions to add depth to skill sets.
  2. Engage in wargaming and exercises to identify individual and organizational training deficiencies. Cyber Flag and Cyber Storm validate realistic education and training and prepare officers by fusing attack and defense across the full spectrum of operations.
  3. Compete for premier programs like Weapons Instructor Course, Education with Industry, AFIT and CNODP, which offer unparalleled paths to excellence.


Doctrine reflects the best means to obtain effects based on the most recent experiences.  This wisdom is utilized to develop the training standards and curriculum taught at IST. In order to build systems that are resilient when attacked, conduct offensive attacks, and maintain and protect critical networks, the UCT curriculum needs to be adaptive.  The cyberspace career field does a good job ensuring that the Professional Continuing Education courses and curriculum remains relevant and current in times of rapid change. They should apply the same rigor to UCT.

The Utilization & Training Workshop (U&TW)/Specialty Training Requirements Team Process is the forum used to create or to revise training standards and to ensure the validity and viability of career field training.  Currently, the cyberspace operations career field manager (CFM) holds an annual U&TW to evaluate current training standards and discuss necessary changes. During the U&TW held in April 2013, several decisions were made which included UCT curriculum modifications, but it took over a year to implement the changes. The career field could do a better job of quickly implementing changes so that students are receiving relevant training by:

  1. Requiring UCT to conduct an internal, mini U&TW on a biannual basis to identify any necessary changes required to the curriculum based on changes in adversary tactics. Required modifications should be documented and sent to the CFM for review and consideration.
  2. Employing the USAF Occupational Measurement Squadron to validate UCT training standards and material. In other words, survey squadron commanders to determine the quality of UCT graduates.
  3. The CFM should establish overarching curriculum timetables to ensure timely modification of course material. For example, minor curriculum revisions should take 30 days; simple revisions 45 days; major revisions 60 days; and complicated revisions 75 days.

The career field must also change current institutional structures that restrict the ability to grow cyberspace leaders. Changes needed include enforcing back-to-back operational tours for new accessions and loosening the time-on-station restriction where locations and units can provide natural career progression. The career field must prepare its officers for leadership by optimizing experiences and skills and developing capabilities to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.


Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently characterized the challenges of the changing national security landscape: “Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one we’ve been engaged in for the last 25 years and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting.” More than ever before, assuring mission success in contemporary operations will integrate elements of cyberspace. Cyberspace operations, unilaterally or in support of air, sea, land, human and space missions, are the protagonist in 21st century national security. Service components, government institutions and partner nations will be brought together in the majority of efforts for the foreseeable future. It is clear that the United States is entering a new strategic era stemming from changing social, political and economic trends.

In order to sustain our edge in future conflicts, USAF leadership must develop a sustainable and flexible framework that manages and develops cyberspace cadre, today and into the future. It must consider the force of the future holistically, using a cradle-to-grave approach to secure the talent necessary to assure mission success in cyberspace. Accessions and retention are equally essential to an effective human capital plan for decades to come. In order to build information age cyberspace human capital, effective force management principles must determine how and where knowledge, skills, and experience are distributed across the force of the future. The challenges are colossal, but as Napoleon once said, “victory belongs to the most persevering.” Given that USAF Airmen are the most innovative and forward-thinking warriors of today’s age, victory will soon belong to us.

Maj. Brian Viola, Maj. Erica L. Fountain, and Maj. Michael C. Williams are graduates of the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration of the Air Command and Staff College. Maj Viola is currently serving as a Program Element Monitor in SAF/AQ. Maj Fountain is currently serving on the AFRICOM Staff. Maj Williams is currently serving as the Director of Staff at the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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