In the middle of an emergency operations center exercise, all the landline telephones stopped working. The entire base staff immediately stopped being able to coordinate response actions. My cellphone rang, and I learned that the main telephone switch had lost power. My Marines did not know if the switch would survive the power loss. We waited as the switch began to reboot, with non-operational telephones and the exercise in shambles. In this moment, I found myself unable to lead. I did not possess the technical knowledge to effect positive change.
A common thread throughout Marine Corps warfighting philosophy is the subordination of the technical competency (the “how”), to commander’s intent (the “why”). While there is never a complete or clear separation between these two concepts in any action, the “mission tactics” leader who represents the prioritization of why over how often is not the optimal leader in the information environment.1 To the technical leader, how information service delivery occurs is as important as why those services are required. Thus, the Marine Corps needs to develop information officers from the mission tactics foundation into technical leaders capable of leading at the point of friction.
Start by assessing the current state of Marine Corps technical leadership through the performance of two commonly used applications, beginning with a Marine Online (MOL) user trying to complete a morning report. Why would a user trying to use MOL as designed ever benefit from receiving the definition of a Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)?2 How many senior leaders trained in a mission tactics mind-set receive or continue to receive the MOL CSRF message without addressing it? Similar examples abound. They are certainly not critical technical issues, but the consistent failure to address them is symptomatic of a broad lack of technical leadership. The question the symptoms raise is whether current or future senior leaders will be able to provide improved technical leadership. As an organization, what are we doing—and what should we be doing—to develop better technical leaders?3
Procuring Technical Leaders
Several strategies have emerged. The most common is to hire a mix of civilians and contractors to perform functions Marines cannot. However, the recent establishment of the network battalions highlights widespread dissatisfaction with this strategy at the highest levels, which is a compelling argument to return to military-owned and operated information systems.
The second strategy is to contract with companies such as Gartner Inc. specifically for technical guidance. However, a technical advisory contract provides only a time-limited solution and fails to account for potential incompatibility between national defense and corporate priorities. Once technical guidance becomes a contracted function, do we begin to lose the ability to evaluate the worth of that guidance?
The third strategy to address the gap could be to standardize all information systems into programs of record (PoRs), essentially contracting the majority of a system’s lifecycle from design to maintenance to technical refresh. But this strategy results in a significant loss of flexibility to respond to vulnerabilities as well as the increased risks associated with the loss of direct control. Further, PoRs are often several months behind the Marine Corps Enterprise Network in applying software patches—and therefore could be orders of magnitude higher at risk. Each strategy fails to solve the problem of our current lack of technical leadership.
The officer corps employed in the information environment must be composed of technical leaders to effectively supervise and lead their Marines to technical success.4 Technical leadership requires human will to solve a problem, combined with knowledge of that problem. A false dichotomy is often cited in the technical fields of the officer corps: the choice between leadership or technical skills. True leadership requires leading by example. A leader of technicians must lead by tackling technical problems with their Marines, in the console, shell, or graphical interface, not by watching them work.5 A technical leader choosing to develop “leadership skills” over “technical skills” is failing to lead.
One reason this dichotomy persists is because a technical officer can be assigned to an enormous array of nontechnical billets, from recruiting duty to recruit training assignments. When these officers return to their occupational specialty after being away from their fields for three-plus years, they are expected to reenter their technical field immediately. No resources, training, or education opportunities are provided to help them maintain or improve technical skills while they serve in nontechnical billets. It thus becomes the path of least resistance for technical officers to claim they prioritize leadership skills over technical ones. This attitude compounds with the mission tactics mind-set to denigrate the technical competency of how information services are delivered and produces our current technical leadership deficit. Before developing solutions to solve this problem, it is necessary first to evaluate the baseline level of technical knowledge and proficiency imparted through the current initial training pipeline.
Compare the knowledge required to become a naval aviator with Marines entering a technical field such as communications. After Officer Candidate School and The Basic School, aviators attend Aviation Pre-Indoctrination, followed by primary, intermediate, and advanced flight training, followed by platform-specific training, followed by specific qualifications, followed by on-the-job training and further qualifications. The aviator’s ability to fly an aircraft is contingent on gaining and maintaining qualifications, including monthly recertification. The pipeline totals a minimum of a year and a half of training to operate a $60 million F/A-18. In contrast, six months at the Basic Communications Officers Course does not teach a technical officer how to search for indicators of compromise on a log server or to review the results of a patch audit vulnerability scan, much less how to choose a storage platform. However, it does qualify a junior officer to employ a platoon of 150 Marines in the operation of $30 million in equipment.6 The technical officer graduates with a management mind-set instead of technical leadership ability. The inevitable conclusion is that the average aviator will understand how their airframe operates to a far greater degree than the average technical officer understands the information systems that transmit and store the aviator’s mission data.
This initial knowledge gap increases over time, as the aviator continues qualifying with their airframe. In contrast, the technical officer’s opportunities to “qualify” with a system are mostly limited to on-the-job training from the Marines they lead. In fact, the technical officer’s follow-on technical training is essentially limited to a meager number of Naval Postgraduate School seats.7 Data that details what U.S. adversaries are spending on their technical leadership is not publicly available, but there are clear indications they devote proportionally more resources to the information environment.
The Marine Corps recruits nontechnical officers and places them in technical occupational fields with limited technical training, as compared with both other military occupational specialties (MOSs) and adversaries. The Marine Corps does not possess comparable follow-on opportunities to build knowledge. Junior technical leaders are learning technical skills from the Marines that they are supposed to lead and challenge. This results in technical leaders ill-equipped to train their Marines and unable to properly evaluate information security risks for their commanders.8 As these officers grow in rank and responsibility, they make funding, equipment, and training resource-allocation decisions that directly affect the Marine Corps’ future in the information environment.
Outside the Marine Corps
The corresponding civilian manager starts out with a small area of technical competency likely developed through obtaining a relevant bachelor’s degree or attending trade school and grows technical expertise to the point where it broadens into other areas. From there, promotion follows demonstrated leadership ability. By the time they reach the managerial or supervisory level at which military officers begin, they typically have eight to twelve years (or more) of technical experience.
In contrast, the Marine Corps graduates officers into technical occupational specialties who often have not completed any technical undergraduate work. The officer corps jumps straight into the middle of this progression, essentially skipping the foundational technical competency development phase. The military officer may possess more general leadership experience but falls behind the curve in technical aspects. While this shotgun-leadership role captures the benefit of a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, and functions well in nontechnical military specialties, it fails to meet the requirements of the modern information environment.
Fix the Problem
The solution involves a two-pronged approach: (1) the development of technical competency paths within the officer corps and (2) attention to the aptitudes and interests of each Marine. Begin by defining the competencies or areas in which to grow technical competency beyond the well-defined and well-rehearsed initial MOS training courses. These development paths should not duplicate the enlisted technical paths, tied to training and readiness standards and specific gear suites, but should develop a new, broader approach. Perhaps the model could be modern academic fields. The fields of computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, and information technology management all offer fully developed curricula that readily apply. The developing academic field of cybersecurity offers potential for our offensive and defensive cyber officers. These academic fields are updated with a frequency and to an academic standard that exceeds the rigor of our own training and readiness standards. Interagency collaboration could fill any perceived deficiencies (such as offensive cyber experience with the National Security Agency, computer network operations).9
The Marine Corps should codify technical competency paths aligned to these academic fields through a “necessary” MOS (NMOS) structure.10 There should be two different levels: a post-baccalaureate bachelor of science program for company-grade officers without a relevant bachelor’s degree and a master of science for field-grade officers. To be successful in the long run, these NMOSs need to be assigned based on individual aptitude and interest. While initial MOSs are assigned primarily based on the needs of the Marine Corps (and there certainly should be a minimum staffing level of each NMOS), the service must preserve and maintain future technical leadership. The proposed technical fields vary significantly, and the person who flourishes in one field may not flourish in another.
A potential hurdle is providing course materials to geographically dispersed duty stations. Distance learning from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) would be the most readily available option, or perhaps collaboration with a top-tier school such as Stanford or an online education leader like Georgia Tech would be even better options. At the company-grade level, such field-specific study would comprise less than two years of work, similar in length to Expeditionary Warfare School. Increased investment in the technical officer corps necessitates corresponding incentives to ensure retention, such as a bonus/service commitment structure associated with completion. The existing aviation bonus program or critical skills retention bonus both demonstrate possible solutions adaptable to technical skills.11 Retention and promotion board eligibility can enforce these NMOS requirements, eradicating the false leadership vs. technical skills dichotomy.
While increasing the knowledge of the technical fields and principles through formal education, the Marine Corps also ought to encourage its officer corps to learn applied, specific technologies outside of an academic program. Often vendor-specific training is the best way to learn the functionality or implementation of a specific technology. Such opportunities currently exist; the Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL) program and the three Communications Training Centers provide a basic offering of certification and training resources.12 However, the Marine Corps does not allow commissioned officers to participate in the COOL program, a remarkably perplexing limitation.
The Marine Corps has several opportunities to build technical leadership within the officer corps and remain competitive with adversaries over the next 10 to 15 years. Create technical paths as a requirement for promotion and retention. Provide top-tier resources for these paths via NPS or some similar academic collaboration. Enable vendor and technology-specific technical skills development via CTCs and the COOL program. Open the COOL program to officers to increase access to professional technical training and certification. The results of ignoring the need to develop technical leaders will be inferior information services and inability to compete in offensive cyber or defensive information security.
1. “Mission tactics is just as the name implies: the tactics of assigning a subordinate mission without specifying how the mission must be accomplished.” Marine Corps, MCDP-1: Warfighting, 87.
2. Marines may receive the following error message when attempting to login to MOL: “Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) is an attack that forces an end user to execute unwanted actions on a web application in which they’re currently authenticated. CSRF attacks are not data theft, since the attacker has no way to see the response to the forged request. With a little help of social engineering (such as sending a link via email or chat), an attacker may trick the users of a web application into executing actions of the attacker's choosing. If the victim is a normal user, a successful CSRF attack can force the user to perform update requests like transferring funds, changing their email address, and so forth.”
3. “We must have some larger scheme for how we expect to achieve victory. That is, before anything else, we must conceive how we intend to win.” MCDP-1, 82.
4. “Based on the mission, the commander then develops a concept of operations, which explains how the unit will accomplish the mission, and assigns missions to subordinates.” Marine Corps, MCDP-1, 90.
5. “The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar.” Marine Corps, MCWP 6-11, 97.
6. My first platoon consisted of more than 150 Marines and a Consolidated Memorandum of Receipt valued at $35,376,271.00.
7. The other courses available, the “MAGTF Communications Planners Course” and the “Cybersecurity Managers Course” are entirely too broad in scope to be considered a technical course to the same degree as the technical academic fields discussed later. Marine Corps, MARADMIN 530/19.
8. “Only by their physical presence—by demonstrating the willingness to share danger and privation—can commanders fully gain the trust and confidence of subordinates,” Marine Corps, MCDP-1, 80. I propose that the parallel experience in the information environment is to “share the console.”
9. “The Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), now Computer Network Operations, structured as S32 is a cyber-warfare intelligence-gathering unit of the National Security Agency (NSA). It has been active since at least 1998. TAO identifies, monitors, infiltrates, and gathers intelligence on computer systems being used by entities foreign to the United States.” Wikipedia.
10. “A non-PMOS that has a prerequisite of one or more PMOSs. This MOS identifies a particular skill or training that is in addition to a Marine's PMOS, but can only be filled by a Marine with a specific PMOS,” Marine Corps, Marine Corps Order 1200.17, Enclosure (1), revised 8 August 2013,” X.
11. Marine Corps. “MARADMIN 607/17”; Marine Corps, “MARADMIN 382/18.”
12. Marine Corps, Marine Corps COOL.