New classes and updated curriculum reflect evolving threats and lessons from the Ukraine war.
AUGUSTA, Ga.—Some soldiers tapped for the Army’s toughest cyber jobs haven’t been ready when they graduated from the service’s training program, so its leaders have been adding classes and updating the curriculum to keep up with evolving technologies and global threats.
“The vast majority of our students are ready day one that they hit the ground to their assigned units,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Stanton, the commanding general at the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
But others haven’t been, Stanton said, including soldiers sent to Cyber Mission Force, National Mission Teams, National Support Teams, Combat Mission Teams, Combat Support Teams, and Cyber Protection Teams.
So the the center, which is responsible for training soldiers in the ever-changing areas of signals intelligence, cyber, and electronic warfare, has for the past year been updating its curriculum and how it trains “offensively oriented cyber mission force soldiers,” he told reporters Aug. 16 at the AFCEA TechNet Augusta conference here.
Part of that effort includes the development of a new course to “allow our soldiers and joint service members to attend class at Fort Gordon and become fully trained to report to their respective units. Ready to execute their missions,” he said.
The course, which is being developed with U.S. Cyber Command, is in a pilot stage and taught across several locations, including in Texas and Georgia and at CYBERCOM headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., It is expected to be fully operational in a year and “requires a little bit of a change in curriculum, a change in approach, a change in our assessment strategy,” Stanton said. “But we are absolutely making progress and informing the longer term way ahead.”
That way ahead includes integrating lessons from the Russia-Ukraine conflict while working to retain trained talent. The conflict has demonstrated lessons on electronic warfare, such as controlling electronic signature emissions “and what your footprint looks like in the electromagnetic spectrum.”
“We're watching cyber, we're watching information, we're watching the electronic warfare unfold in front of our eyes. We absolutely have to pay attention and then incorporate those lessons learned right back into what we're teaching our soldiers inside of our schoolhouse that we're responsible for at the Cyber Center of Excellence,” Stanton told Defense One.
As a result, he said, the center is developing an education-first model where teaching principles will remain steady even as tools and methods change.
“The rate of technology, the rate of change from our enemies, and our adversaries, force us to stay on our toes. And so we have to be prepared to change as the environment changes with what we teach in our classes,” Stanton said.
Over the next 12 months, the Army Cyber Center of Excellence plans to introduce material related to zero trust and focus on cultivating data engineers who can think about “what data needs to be [at] what place at what time and how to make that happen effectively.”
“You're gonna see that our military occupational specialties for the Signal Corps are actually shrinking. We were overly specialized; we had 17 [military occupational specialties]. We're taking that down to seven so that our force is general enough to understand how data will flow from end-to-end—tactical into enterprise and back again—yet still specialized to ensure that we have the right technical depth to actually operate in the environment,” Stanton said.
But there’s still a dearth of tech talent in and out of the government. Defense officials often say that what the government can’t match in salary, it makes up for in mission and interesting problem sets. However, that might not be enough.
“We don't have a big recruiting challenge in our small fields; we have a retention problem. Because when folks gain the skills necessary to execute in the cyber warfighting domain, they become incredibly marketable to the outside world. So we need to keep our folks on our team,” Stanton told Defense One.
To correct that, Stanton said their goal at Fort Gordon is to improve daily life for tech-savvy soldiers so that they’ll stay in the service with initiatives, including patching potholes, renovating barracks, and building new classrooms “to make the quality of life commensurate with the highly technical skills of our workforce.”
Lt. Gen. Maria Barrett, the commander of Army Cyber Command, said it’s best to catch talented people when they’re young.
“The talent pipeline, I can't stress enough, is absolutely vital to the success of this mission. Where does that pipeline start for Army Cyber? It starts at JROTC. We cannot rely on the traditional recruiting models to fill this pipeline for us,” Barrett said during a keynote speech at the conference.
Barrett told Defense One that ARCYBER currently has 10 locations participating in the JROTC cyber pilot programs, which targets high-schoolers and is designed to “increase the culture of cyber in the next generation” of Army leaders.
“And if they come into the service, great. If they don't, I think that's still value added to the community. But I think that pipeline has to be there for us, not just as an Army, but also nationally,” Barrett said.
The command eventually wants to expand the program but will maintaining the existing ones to “get some lessons learned about what it's going to take to support this goal,” Barrett said.
“We still have a mission to do. And then we'll go from there. But I think the investment is still worth discovering: How do we make this pipeline? Can we trace somebody in JROTC all the way to becoming a cyber warrior in the future?”