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​—Wilson Brissett

The Air Force can “never have enough” cyber operators, but the service must also make sure it’s not only focusing on numbers but bringing in people with the right skills, said Lt. Gen. William Bender, the Air Force’s chief information officer, during an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday.

“This is high-demand, low-density in terms of the people who really understand the cyber domain and especially how to bring effects or to defend,” he said. But to properly address the problem, Bender said the Defense Department needs to overhaul its personnel system because in the cyber domain, attracting and retaining the right talent is precisely the problem. “We can’t produce them enough,” Bender said. “Everybody else wants them, and airmen who serve six years for us, we spend three to four years training them, they become fairly good at what they’re doing, and then they go out and triple their salary” by taking jobs in the private sector.

Bender said for the military, there’s no buying it’s way out of this problem. Because of federal budget realities, “that’s a fact of life, and we’re not going to be able to bring ourselves to the point where we can take care of them that way.” Even if the incoming Trump Administration increases defense spending as it has promised, “a significant plus-up barely moves the needle in terms of what we need,” Bender said. The military simply won’t be able to compete with what Silicon Valley can pay.

In the meantime, Bender said, “we’re doing every trick in the book to work through the personnel system” to place talented people on critical cyber projects. “There’s 17 different initiatives underway within the cyberspace community to actually best advantage ourselves,” he said.

USAF has experimented with “bonuses to assess, bonuses to retain, special pays, permeability of the workforce, bringing people in and letting them take a break from the Air Force.” Despite all of these attempts, however, “it falls short of the requirement,” said Bender.

Surprisingly, the personnel who are doing the most to help the Air Force in cyber warfare today are the part-timers. “The best return on our investment today as we speak is actually the Total Force,” Bender asserted. He’s talking about “Reservists and Guardsmen” who have one foot in industry and one in the service. These IT operators “work all week at Cisco” and then come in on the weekends to “solve wicked problems for the Air Force or the other services.”

In addition to providing the Air Force with cyber expertise it can’t get anywhere else, the advanced experience of these part-timers makes everyone working around them better, through “cross-pollination among some of the younger folks who have the ability but don’t have that exposure” of working on industry’s leading edge.

Ultimately, even the Total Force contribution won’t solve the problem, Bender said. But the sort of hybrid workers it has brought to cyber operations could serve as a model for needed reforms. “The real Third Offset from my perspective is a changed personnel system,” Bender said. He envisions a system “that allows us to be much more agile in assessing some of those skilled people either on a shared basis or in a partnership fashion that just doesn’t equate to the way we do it today.”

In such a personnel world, where exceptional talent could be shared more easily or particularly thorny problems outsourced more quickly, the military wouldn’t have to compete for the most skilled workers on a permanent basis. Bender did not offer comments on how much appetite there is within the DOD for bringing about such a change.