Pentagon’s cyberwarfare troops get the training, then leave, asserts GAO report


The U.S. military is facing its most pressing recruiting challenges since the inception of the all-volunteer force almost 50 years ago. Only the Marine Corps met its manpower goals in fiscal 2022, and 2023 looks to be an equally tough year, Pentagon officials said.

The Defense Department has blamed its staffing woes on a number of factors, from stiff competition from the civilian sector to potential recruits who can’t pass the physical.

But some of the services aren’t helping themselves when it comes to recruiting and retaining troops with critical cyberwarfare skills that are sought in the civilian sector, according to a new report from the congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The study focuses on military personnel who have received lengthy and expensive training to be Interactive On-Net (ION) operators, part of the military’s offensive cyber workforce who conduct computer network reconnaissance missions and analyze a network’s vulnerabilities.

Training and certification to become an ION operator can take up to three years and cost the service $220,000 to $500,000, according to the GAO report.

The Navy and Air Force require graduates of the military’s ION training to remain in the service for at least three years. 

“The three-year active-duty service obligation associated with completion of the training ensures the Air Force receives at least one assignment from service members after they complete the training, which (it) stated is considered a sufficient return on (its) investment,” the GAO analysts wrote.

The Navy also said a three-year tour of duty after cyberwarfare training would be an adequate return on its investment, according to the report.

However, the Army doesn’t have a specific service obligation requirement for its cyberwarfare-trained soldiers. It has a general requirement covering all military training. Based on the service’s regulations, a graduate of the Army’s ION course would incur an active-duty obligation of 1.8 years for officers and 2.4 years for enlisted troops, the GAO report stated.

Marine Corps officials told the GAO there is no additional active-duty service obligation tied to training for specific roles or positions. 

“The Marine Corps does not currently have a method by which to assign additional service obligations to lengthy and costly training like that required for ION certification,” the report stated. “They have not established service obligations related to ION certification training because only enlisted personnel are eligible to train as IONs, and service obligations for enlisted personnel are handled via enlistment contract.”

U.S. Army Cyber Command officials told GAO analysts they are working to revise their regulations to clearly define a three-year service obligation for officers and enlisted personnel who complete ION training. But Army officials told them they didn’t have an estimated timeline for finalizing revisions to the regulations.

The Marine Corps cyber officials told the GAO they are requesting guidance from higher headquarters about instituting active duty service obligations for graduates of their ION training courses.

“While (Marine Corps Cyber) supports the change as soon as possible, an official with that office was unsure when or if the request would be approved and implemented,” the GAO report stated.


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