Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter shocked the military last summer when he called for boosting the military's high-tech force by finding civilians who already have those vital skills like cyber security and offer them "lateral entry" into the military — a chance to skip boot camp and put on a uniform as a mid-career rank from Day One.
In effect, he suggested having a Marine Corps that included "Marines," pinned with a staff sergeant's rocker, who had never been to boot camp and spent no time in the junior tanks. Marines scattered across the force who had little knowledge of Marine culture and whose colleagues quietly questioned their status as a "real Marine."
Nobody in the military was more skeptical than the Marines.
Yet now as the Corps begins planning to grow the force significantly during the next several years, the controversial idea is back on the table, Marine Corps Times has learned. One way or the other, the Marine Corps needs those high-tech capabilities. Currently there are big shortages in some of those career fields. It's a top priority for today's leaders.
At stake is combat readiness. Marine Commandant Gen. Neller acknowledged that it will take more than riflemen to win future wars. Growing the Marine Corps should not focus on adding infantry troops but instead on building up those high-tech capabilities to support those traditional Marines who are trained to fight at the tip of the spear.
"If you don't have those things, whatever formation you put on the battlefield is not going to be as survivable or combat effective without them," Neller said during speech at U.S. Naval Institute event in Washington in December.
The idea of lateral entry remains under discussion among Marine Corps planners. It would not be the first time: When the Corps recruits top musicians for the "Presidents' Own" band in Washington, it finds top musicians, gives them a pass on boot camp and starts them out as staff sergeants.
But the Marine Corps leaders are treading lightly on the idea of expanding that for skills like cyber. The Corps is more skeptical than the other services about many aspects of Carter's "Force of the Future" reforms. The Marines truly believe their motto of "Every Marine is a rifleman," and believe that has been the service's unique strength throughout its storied history.
The top generals and manpower experts want to be realistic about the fact that the more lateral entry they consider, the less honest that will make the axiom of: "Every Marine is a rifleman."
"If you go away from that, then I think you lose something that has made the Marine Corps what it is," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, who served on President Trump's transition team.
"A Marine is a Marine," Wood said. "If that breaks down, you've got problems."
Yet lateral entry is under discussion at the highest levels of the Marine Corps, driven in part by concerns about recruiting top talent.
"We're going to look for every opportunity that we can to get the right talent," said Maj. Gen. Lori Reynolds, the head of Marine Forces Cyberspace Command.
She referred to lateral entry as the "Marine Corps' band model."
"We need to start thinking outside of the box on some of this stuff because, monetarily, it's really difficult to keep up with industry offers," Reynolds said in early April at the Navy League's annual Sea-Air-Space symposium.
"If there is that uniquely qualified person out there, is there a model where we would want to bring them on?" she said in a Marine Corps Times interview.
The issue is readiness and how it's defined, said Katherine Kidder, a military personnel expert with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington.
"The question becomes: Which is a greater risk? This loss of culture or the lack of a specific skill that is necessary?" Kidder said.
"There are risks to [eroding] the trust that is imbibed through the shared experience of having gone through all of the physical and military training," she said. "On the flip side, there's also a huge risk right now if we don't have cyber expertise resident within the services themselves."
WHAT IS A CYBER MARINE?
Military officials all say they need more "cyber."
But what that means exactly is unclear. Cyber has become a buzzword referring to an expanding array of highly skilled Marines in fields like intelligence, communications and information technology.
It's not just computer coders sequestered in classified computer lab somewhere far from the fight. It's also forward-deployed intelligence analysts using sophisticated software to transform streams of raw signals into actionable intelligence. It's also rifle-toting radio and communications Marines at the tip of the spear making sure equipment works properly so infantry Marines can do their job.
In many of those job fields, the Corps is already undermanned. As of December, the Marine Corps was short about 800 enlisted Marines trained in cyber operations; more than 250 enlisted troops who specialize in counter-intelligence and human intelligence; and more than 100 image analysts — or close to 25 percent of the target force of nearly 500 — according to data provided by Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
But a spokesman for Manpower & Reserve Affairs cautioned Marines not to read too much into the numbers. Specifically, the data on how many more cyber operators the Marine Corps needs is "not applicable to the development of the cyber community," said Maj. Garron Garn.
"Marines should not use this information to make career decisions," Garn told Marine Corps Times. "There are so many variables that go into determining manpower requirements that this data cannot be broken down into a simple math problem to identify career opportunities. The best thing a Marine can do if they have questions about the new cyber MOS, or any other MOS, is to seek out a career counselor or speak with their chain of command."
If the Marine Corps opts against lateral entry Marines, it has to decide how to grow cyber in some other way.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Grace L. Waladkewics/Marine Corps
Bringing in civilians with cyber security skills is an option. But it has limitations. One, legally, some offensive cyber operations have to be carried out by an uniformed service member.
In addition, offering the prestige of a Marine uniform may be a draw to some young people with high-level cyber skills. A lateral entry would "appeal to that guy who just wants to wear the Marine emblem on their chest – but who could otherwise, maybe, make $200,000 as a 26-year-old," Reynolds said.
If the Marine Corps opts against lateral entree Marines, they have to decide how to grow them some other way.
But internally, the Marine Corps is not equipped to rapidly expand those highly specialized skill sets. It can take many months — years even — to get those new Marines into the force.
Natural expansion must begin with top-level Marine commanders issuing orders to recruiters nationwide to increase target goals for young people with those skills. It takes months for new recruits to sign contracts, ship to boot camp and move into a specialized training pipeline.
The training pipelines may need to be expanded, which in turn requires training and assigning more instructors.
And, finally, retaining those Marines requires a clear and compelling career path that can compete with the high-paid options in the private sector.
Even if the Corps decides to grow it's own cyber warriors from the rank of E-1, there is some debate internally about when that specialization should begin.
Should they find off-the-street computer coding experts and civilian-trained electronic engineers, send them to boot camp make them Marines alongside the traditional infantrymen? Or should they recruit traditional Marines and after years of serving in a traditional combat arms job, pluck those with an aptitude for tech skills and teach them as part of specialized militarily training?
"We've got to go back and map the career path and figure out," Neller said. "Is it really somebody that you can bring in from the beginning?"
"Or is it something more like MARSOC [Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command], where you come in; you become a Marine; you establish your credentials as a Marine, then we have some sort of a test and evaluation, then you apply and then you go on from there."
"My sense is it will be a bit closer to the latter," Neller said.
Marine Corps leaders are sorting through many options. One route is to boost cyber capabilities in the reserve component and mobilize those part-time Marines as needed.
The Marine Corps is looking into whether there is a "viable, long-term occupational field" for cyber, Neller told reporters at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium in January.
That is why the Marines are creating a new occupational field and new military occupational specialities for cyber operators, Reynolds said.
Traditionally, Marines have come to MARFORCYBER from two different occupational fields: signals intelligence and communications, Reynolds told Marine Corps Times. The personnel changes will allow the command to retain experienced Marines instead of having them go back to their original MOS.
"Those who come to cyber stay in cyber," Reynolds said. "You'd be an offensive cyber guy or a defensive cyber guy, but once you come, you stay."
THE FUTURE OF WAR
The demand for cyber skills is straining the definition of combat readiness.
Many Marines believe that combat readiness hinges on the grit and mettle of individual Marines and the tightly knit culture of Marine Corps units expressed in the phrase "every Marine a rifleman." And there's a long history of success to back that up.
But making sure that every Marine unit has the skills it needs is also vital, especially as the future poses risks beyond the al Qaida-style terrorists of recent history. As tension rises with near-peer rivals like Russia and China, or at least full-scale militaries like Iran or Syria, the skills and tactics that Marines developed in the years after 9/11 may not be enough.
"That insurgent didn't have electronic warfare," Neller said in September at the Marine Corps League's Modern Day Marine expo. "That insurgent didn't have an air force. That insurgent didn't have effective indirect fire. That insurgent didn't have the ability to take out our networks or jam our comms."
Wood, who helped draw up proposals for expanding the ranks of the Corps infantry, agreed that maintaining combat readiness is not just about adding traditional infantry units.
"Maybe the nature of warfare is just evolving in a way that I would rather have a company's worth of cyber skills than a company or two of standard infantry because of the types of things that you're having to do these days," Wood said.
Carter's proposal for expanding lateral entry options for high-skilled civilians was one of many controversial ideas he floated in the final months of the Obama administration. He also suggested the military should consider modifying fitness standards, grooming regulations or rules that make past drug use disqualifying — an in an effort to make recruiting cyber talent easier.
Today's Marine Corps remains deeply skeptical of those, especially the suggestion that some Marine might not be subject to the traditional fitness requirements.
"Our history has shown that somebody who is physically fit is usually more mentally sharp as well," said Brig. Gen. Jason Bohm the head of the Corps' training command. "They are able to sustain and endure through physically demanding and mentally demanding times."
War might not be changing as much as some people think, Bohm said.
"Obviously cyberwarfare, [electronic warfare] an [information operations] are all tools that will be employed in future warfare; but ultimately it comes down to two opposing wills having to impose their will on the other, and that requires flexible, adaptable problem solvers who can endure and sustain themselves in stressful situations."