One of the Army’s most urgent, ongoing cyber fights is for talent, and it’s hauling out some new weapons, like bringing in new officers in ranks up to colonel to be cyber ninjas and offering big bonuses across the cyber force.

Direct officer commissions at high ranks are now being considered in Congress for all the services to build up their cyber capabilities, Army officials say. That and hefty cash incentives are part of the Army’s strategy to bring in and keep people with high-demand cyber skills at a time when the civilian unemployment rate for them is essentially zero, the officials say.

The Army is looking at more money for much of its cyber force, and working through authorization for direct officer commissioning for talented civilians at ranks through colonel, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, the new commander of Army Cyber Command. He spoke Thursday at an Army Cyber + Networks event at the Association of the United States Army in Arlington, Virginia.

Accession bonuses of $40,000 for direct commissioned officers are being considered and may be in place in the next calendar year, Army officials confirmed to Army Times on Friday.

“High-end operators” can earn as much as $72,000 in selective retention bonuses, and senior NCOs get up to $100,000 for agreeing to a four-year commitment.

But if you’re competing for talent with Google or Facebook, it can’t be about just the money.

“How can you match the industry with pay? The fact of the matter is you can’t,” said Brig. Gen. Joseph McGee, director of the Talent Management Task Force, Thursday at the AUSA cyber event.

“We need to stop even having that discussion,” McGee said. “It’s not matter of matching civilian pay, it’s closing the gap between military pay and civilian pay, and in that gap providing all the things that keep all of us in service. … It’s the uniqueness of contributing to your nation’s defense that motivates all of us to serve. I think that resonates with people sometimes much more than we give it credit.”

The Army has already begun officer direct commissions to the rank of first lieutenant, and at that level, the pay gap can be huge.

McGee cites the example of “one highly talented individual” the Army wanted to direct commission as a lieutenant, and then that person realized he’d make about the same as a first lieutenant as he would in a part-time job at Dell.

“You can’t have it be that large of a gap,” McGee said.

The Army is working on these incentives for cyber warriors to sign up and stay in the service:

  • An accession bonus of $40,000 for direct commissioned officers is under consideration and could be in place sometime next calendar year.  
  • Assignment incentive pay up to $500 per month is authorized for all cyber service members but is not yet implemented across the force because qualification criteria are still being developed. 
  • Special duty assignment pay up to $300 per month is authorized for enlisted soldiers, but is likewise not yet implemented across the force. 
  • The career field of 17C cyber operations specialist has a selective retention bonus ranging from $15,300 to $57,600.  
  • 17C offers $19,200 to $72,000 in a location selection retention bonus for high-end operators. 
  • Senior NCOS can receive a written bonus agreement of $60,000 or $100,000 for three- or four-year commitments, respectively. 

These incentives are already in place:

  • Direct commission of officers at first lieutenant. 
  • Directly commissioned officers in the Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) can receive up to $65,000 in student loan repayments.

The Army recently commissioned its first two officers as first lieutenants through its new pilot program to direct commission cyber officers. The program, approved by Congress, is set up to help fill certain capabilities the Army needs, such as computer scientists, data specialists, reverse engineers and development operations engineers.

Direct commissions to higher ranks until now have been given to medical officers, Army officials said. Medical officers can enter as captains, majors and lieutenant colonels, and prior-service officers can re-enter service as full colonels.

Pending approval from Congress, cyber officers may soon enter any of the military services in the same range of ranks.

That will be a cultural shift for the Army, McGee said.

“These superstars play an outsize role, make an outsize contribution to our operations,” he said. “Some of the things we are talking about are so fundamentally different, a challenge to the way we have done things.”

Kathleen Curthoys is editor of Army Times. She has been an editor at Military Times for 20 years, covering issues that affect service members. She previously worked as an editor and staff writer at newspapers in Columbus, Georgia; Huntsville, Alabama; Bloomington, Indiana; Monterey, California and in Germany.

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