Cyber war requires a new look for a new kind of soldier
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“I can shut down your power grids. I can paralyze your infrastructure. I can access the personal data of everyone in America.” This is the voice you hear as the camera pushes slowly towards an ownerless laptop in the center of a darkened room. As the laptop’s screen fills with text and the modulated voice says “I am the enemy with no face, and I can’t be stopped…” the picture explodes into static, which rapidly coalesces into a montage of the “Good Guys.”

Some are civilian, but most are in uniform. These young, trim, dedicated soldiers work furiously at keyboards and touch screens as, stopping the ‘enemy with no face.’ These are the U.S. Army’s “team of cyber warriors who will not be defeated.” They are the stars of the new recruitment ad to “join the team that makes a difference.”

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And we need that difference now. That Army ad wasn’t exaggerating when it talked about the threats to our power grids or infrastructure. We’ve witnessed recent attacks on a hospital. We know for a fact that our election was hacked by a foreign government. And as scary as data breaches are, they pale in comparison to outright sabotage of physical machinery by hostile virus like Stuxnet. If the Stuxnet virus can cause Iranian centrifuges to fail, what, or who, can stop Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-un, or just some random anarchist from grabbing the wheel of your driverless car?

 

Cyberspace is today what airspace was a century ago. It’s a whole new domain our enemies are rushing to exploit. That’s why, on May 21, 2010, the Defense Department created U.S. Cyber Command. That joint military operation has a goal no different than any tank platoon, carrier group, or fighter wing: to keep us safe.

The problem facing this new service is finding the right quantity and quality of talent, and herein lies the problem. The best cyber warriors don’t always make the best soldiers. I saw this new ad during an episode of “Family Guy,” right after a scene featuring pudgy Chris Griffin being chased by angry ducks. What if the very recruits we need were watching the same ad, and looked a lot more like Chris Griffin than the late sniper Chris Kyle?

Some won’t be able to handle the physical rigors of basic training. Some won’t be able to pass a drug test. Many simply don’t have the kind of brains wired for precision marching and crisp solutes.

Does the Army turn them over to civilian agencies like the NSA, or a quasi-private contractor system (like the civilians in the ad)? Maybe the Army should just relinquish its cyber branch altogether and allow it to form a completely separate service (like when the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force). But if the Army still wants to retain a uniformed presence in cyberspace, how do they do it without offending those who’ve literally sweated and bled for the right to call themselves soldiers?

This is another question I’ve heard asked many times. When does a uniform become a costume? What gives a warrior the right, at first glance, to be visually identified as such? It’s a question with no easy answers. We need the right cyber talent, no doubt, but we also need people to rise at reveille and place themselves in harm’s way. Can these two cultures co-exist in the same uniform? Maybe, if we change the uniform.

In another time, in another place, our British cousins found themselves in a similar quandary over talent. During World War II, they needed a lot of qualified naval officers to fill a lot of badly needed tasks. But putting these Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves (RNVR) in the same threads as the career battleship officers would have offended a tradition going all the way back to the days of ‘wooden ships and iron men.’ Their solution was to change the gold stripes on RNVR sleeves from straight to wavy. The message was loud and clear: “We may not be the varsity, but we’re still just as much in the game.”

Creating a new, specialized uniform probably wouldn’t entice new recruits. That’s a much bigger, more complex issue. It might, however, encourage those who already want to serve their country but never thought they could. A distinct stripe or badge, or black and grey camo pattern would send a very clear message to two very diverse communities.

To the traditional warrior class it would say, “Yes, we know we’re not you and we’re not pretending to be. We respect the risks you take and we honor the sacrifices you make.”

To the civilian world it would say, “We keep your private data private. We keep your democratic process democratic. We keep your lights on and your hospitals running. We may serve behind keyboards, but keep you just as safe as those behind triggers. We stand watch on the digital wall. We are Cyber Warriors.”

Max Brooks is a nonresident fellow at The Modern War Institute at West Point and a senior nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council. He is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller “World War Z.”


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