The Air Force plans to expand its cyber capabilities and boost the field as part of a planned increase in end strength.
The Air Force named October as "Cybersecurity Awareness Month," and there are reports that the Pentagon could decide next year whether U.S. Cyber Command needs to be a unified combat command, on par with the likes of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Strategic Command.
With the emphasis on digital operations, retraining opportunities are opening up, and Air Force leaders are debating what sorts of bonuses and incentives to give existing cyber operators andnew ones.
Maj. Gen. Ed Wilson, leader of 24th Air Force and commander of Air Forces Cyber, said the service has been ramping up its training pipeline.
"We've doubled the size and doubled again," he said at the Air Force Association's annual conference Sept. 14-16.
It's clear that the service understands that cyber professionals are in great demand and it hopes to attract people by offering pay incentives.
The service — and the Pentagon in general — are "looking at different pay scales, perhaps different bonus authorities, maybe waiving some of the existing rules, trying some pilot programs," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Air Force Times.
The Air Force Specialty Code 1B4X1, "Cyberspace Defense Ops," is open for airmen retraining opportunities, and is still on the service's list for selective re-enlistment bonus.
Most airmen re-enlisting in cyber fields are getting about $50,000 in bonuses, Air Force records show, but incentives upwards of $90,000 are also possible based on how long an airman has served and how long the re-commitment will be.
And in some cases, airmen who join cyber-related career fields could see their promotion chances boosted.
According to the most recent promotion data, most airmen in cyber career fields are promoted faster than the Air Force average. And for staff, technical and master sergeants in those jobs, promotion rates tend to be higher than the Air Force average.
In an era of budget cuts and sequestration, cyber is one area that's growing by leaps and bounds. Between 2013 and 2014, U.S. Cyber Command saw its budget more than double from $212 million to $447 million. And in 2015, that number rose again to $509 million.
To help find — and retain — cyber warriors, the brass has come up with a series of incentives:
- Re-enlistment bonuses of $50,000 or more.
- Increased job security.
- New career tracks immune to up-or-out rules.
- Stability and greater choice of location in permanent change-of-station moves.
- Working closely with service members from other branches.
- Gaining in-demand skill sets and experiences.
- Preparing for a career in the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve or private sector.
The emphasis on cyber could also give airmen a chance to work with members of other military branches.
The Pentagon is looking to create 133 cyber teams by 2018 that would work on a variety of strategic cyber missions and respond to cyberattacks.
The Air Force is responsible for standing up 39 of the teams, and is planning to contribute 2,000 airmen to the teams, including members of the Guard and Reserve components.
As of September, 17 of the Air Force teams are operational, with another three expected to be brought online by the end of the year.
"We are in the process right now of trying to build up our cyber forces," James said. "Principally for defense, but there are also opportunities we might have to use cyber as a substitute effect for kinetic effects."
The Air Force is also hoping to add an additional 4,000 airmen to its end strength as part of the fiscal 2016 budget.
Some of those positions will be in the cyber field.
"We have a lot of junior operators today because we've assessed quite a few people into this mission," Wilson said. "It's very exciting to harness the energy and innovation of our younger operators."
But sending so many new recruits into cyber poses some difficulties.
"It is a challenge in terms of new teams standing up doing new missions and the tactics, techniques, procedures are fairly new, relatively speaking, to the rest of our Air Force," Wilson said.
That's why the cyber field isn't just looking for fresh-faced airman basics, but also people with experience "a little bit higher than your average high school graduate," according to Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy.
He added the service could recruit midcareer people from both inside and outside the military.
"The ability to have ways to tap into talented folks particularly in cyber realm, because it changes so fast and it iterates so fast in terms of how technology changes, is key," he said. "So having alternate career paths and alternate personnel systems that maybe can take in lateral talent at different grade levels and have them progress through the system or be retained in different ways is one of the things that's being looked at for Force of the Future."
That may lead to nontraditional force structures and recruitment efforts, Kelly said.
The Air Force could have "separate technical career tracks where an airman would not necessarily have to progress through and work on all the other corporate requirements an airman might have, but be able to focus on their technical track," the general said. "Cyber lends itself very directly to that."
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said he doesn't think the Air Force will have any trouble recruiting talent.
"Right now today, we are in a pretty good place when it comes to finding folks that want to do that," Cody said. "Because I think we offer some pretty exciting opportunities that you're clearly not going to get to do some other places. We're going to get to do some stuff that other people don't."
But training and retaining are often two separate areas. Businesses are also pressing hard to recruit cyber experts to defend their servers.
Despite being an in-demand skill set, Wilson said he doesn't believe the Air Force will ever be without airmen willing to step up in the digital realm.
"We have retention rates that, really, are in line with all the other skill sets we're seeing in the Air Force," he told Air Force Times. "We're not seeing this big exodus of talent."
The Air Force often won't be able to compete on salary with businesses, but offers many incentives for airmen including the chance to work on some parts of cyber — like offensive operations — that the private sector can't do.
"People understand they can't take that skill set and head downtown and do the same thing," Wilson said. "We're going to show up on their doorstep and arrest them, because [airmen] do have special authorities."
Because cyber operations can be done via computer, they often don't require airmen to relocate to a specific place. That means the Air Force could offer some greater stability to service members and their families.
"An NCO that's maybe thinking about departing the Air Force, sometimes it's because we're going to move them just in our normal cycle of the way we handle talent in the Air Force," Wilson said. "If someone re-enlists, we offer them a little bit more stability in staying."
Above all, Wilson said he believes airmen will choose to work at the Air Force for the same reasons people enlist.
"Why do people join the Air Force? They're coming in to serve, and that calling is very important," Wilson said. "If we can keep missions exciting and meaningful and making a difference every day, that's one of the best retention tools we'll ever have."
After a string of high profile hacks into Sony Pictures and the Office of Personnel Management, congressional leaders are increasingly agitated at the state of the nation's cybersecurity readiness.
On Capitol Hill Sept. 29, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. needs to confront the "growing boldness of our adversaries and [their] willingness to push the boundaries in cyberspace."
"Make no mistake, we are not winning the fight in cyberspace," he said.
U.S. adversaries are openly "leaving fingerprints" during hacks that could easily identify them because they consider the American response to be "timid and ineffectual," McCain said.
Jeffrey Schogol, Oriana Pawlyk, and Stephen Losey contributed to this report.