Psyching out their adversaries will be Messing with the enemy’s head is one of the best ways Marines will dominate future battlefields, the general in charge of the Marine Corps’ cyber warfare command says.

Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps is looking to build out offensive information warfare capabilities for Marine air-ground task forces, Brig. Gen. Loretta Reynolds, commander of Marine Forces Cyber Command, said at a recent panel discussion Tuesday at the Sea-Air-Space expo outside of Washington, D.C.

Information warfare is more than just protecting networks or knowing what the cyber terrain is, she said.

"It's also trying to get inside the enemy's cognitive space in a way to have him make choices that you want him to make, when you want him to make it," Reynolds said. "What we're talking about is bringing it all together in a way that provides the commander options to dominate the information environment and to get after the enemy's thought processes."

The U.S. military faces both traditional, "dangerously armed and frequently irrational" nation-states as well as non-state actors quietly working at human trafficking, weapons smuggling and terror attacks, Rear Adm. Robert Sharp, commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence, said during the panel.

"When you look at the challenges we're facing today, there's no such thing as a local problem," he said. "[They] cross national boundaries, they cross regional boundaries, they're global in their dimension and require a global approach."

Reynolds, appointed in July to her new dual billet of assistant deputy commandant for information warfare, is leading the charge to ready bring the Marines’ cyber force to bear across for this global digital battlefield.

The Marine Corps provides 13 teams to U.S. Cyber Command and is already engaged in daily, toe-to-toe clashes with adversaries seeking to assault networks and disrupt operations. But However, getting Marines to make the necessary cultural changes needed to meet the ever-growing cyber threats has been a challenge, Reynolds said.

"When the cyber mission force was stood up, there wasn’t a whole lot of goodness initially that the Marine Corps saw in this growth area when the rest of the Marine Corps was downsizing from 202,000 to 182,000 [thousand]," she said.

That's changed, due primarily to having a commandant who "absolutely gets it," Reynolds said.

When Gen. Robert Neller became the 37th Commandant in last September, he immediately made clear that information warfare would be a top priority for the Corps. As he realized the need to Realizing the need to bring in professional talent to build the cyber force, though, however, he was concerned about having to change recruiting standards, Reynolds said. 

"Do I have to start letting guys with purple hair and earrings in?" she recalled Neller asking.

The answer: No.

"You can let them in with purple hair but we’re going to shave it off anyways and plug up whatever holes they have if they’re smart enough," Reynolds added. related.

Gunnery Sgt. Lagarian Smith, cyber network chief with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, guides Cpl. Justin Henderson, a 13th MEU cyber network specialist, through troubleshooting techniques as they set up network communications aboard the USS Boxer during PHIBRON-MEU Intergration (PMINT) exercise Sept. 24, 2015. The exercise marks the first time 13th MEU Marines and Sailors with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group get to work together at sea before their deployment to the Pacific and Central Command areas of responsibility in early 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by: Staff Sgt. Terika S. King/Relased)
Gunnery Sgt. Lagarian Smith, cyber network chief with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, guides Cpl. Justin Henderson, a 13th MEU cyber network specialist, through troubleshooting techniques as they set up network communications aboard the USS Boxer during PHIBRON-MEU Intergration (PMINT) exercise Sept. 24, 2015. The exercise marks the first time 13th MEU Marines and Sailors with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group get to work together at sea before their deployment to the Pacific and Central Command areas of responsibility in early 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by: Staff Sgt. Terika S. King/Relased)

Gunnery Sgt. Lagarian Smith, cyber network chief with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, guides Cpl. Justin Henderson, a cyber network specialist, through troubleshooting techniques as they set up network communications aboard the amphibious assault ship Boxer during a training exercise.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Terika King/Marine Corps

Although recruitment and retention of cyber Marines has been a challenge, the results have been impressive stellar, she said.

"These young Marines are so brilliant: they're smart, have great ideas, and sometimes we just have to unleash them and let them solve problems for us," Reynolds said. "It's a lot of fun to watch them get after that."

The worst enemy Marines often have to face in the cyber space , however, is themselves. Getting Marines to protect themselves from network intrusions and attacks has been one of her greatest challenges, she said.

"No, you cannot plug your Samsung Galaxy phone into the SIPRNetET!" she said, referring to the military’s closed classified network. "That’s not allowed, never has been. But believe it or not, those good ideas happen every day and you gotta beat ‘em back when you see them."

Instituting a culture of good "cyber hygiene," individually and institutionally, is currently the defining struggle for America’s military in its information wars, the panel members agreed.

It's a mindset that fundamentally needs to change, said Rear Adm. Kevin Lunday, training and exercises director at U.S. Cyber Command.

"We'll know that we're making progress when the young soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman sits down at that keyboard, which looks exactly like the one they have at home, but they understand that they're logging onto a weapons system, a mission platform — not a computer," he said.

Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at mschehl@marinecorpstimes.com.