Marines Worry About Losing Cyber Warriors

Commandant says service reaching a ‘red-line’ on troop numbers

Rober Neller
Gen. Rober Neller / AP

The commandant of the Marine Corps is concerned about the military’s ability to retain highly skilled members who can wage war in cyber space and defend against other modern threats.

Gen. Robert Neller, who took command last September, said Tuesday that the Marine Corps does noot currently face a recruiting challenge but that he worries about its ability to retain members in which it invests heavily.

Neller also expressed concern about the extended time it takes to train today’s Marines to perform the complicated tasks of modern warfare.

"What I do worry about … is the additional time it might take, and then being able to retain enough of these," Neller told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Tuesday morning. "These are very, very capable and qualified people and there [are] opportunities out there, so if we are going to train somebody to work in the cyber domain, for example, and we invest in them, and they get to the end of their enlistment, they’re going to have a huge room of opportunity."

He said concerns about retention also apply to members of the Air Force, Army, and Navy.

"How do we convince them to stick around and wear this uniform, or wear a uniform, and do that when some of your companies are out there offering up two, three times as much money and they get to sleep in their own bed at night and no one is trying to kill them?" Neller continued.

"So far, enough of them take pride and are willing to accept the challenge, but I worry about that because as the force becomes more technical, the force becomes more capable and they have more options."

The Marines have undergone a years-long drawdown of active duty troops, and will have dwindled to 182,000 personnel by the end of this year, down from a wartime peak of 202,000 personnel in 2009.

Neller said the drawdown has put stress on the force because commitments abroad have not declined, adding that the end goal of the drawdown represents a "red line" for the service. Marines are currently deploying at a rate of what the Corps calls "two-to-one," meaning that they deploy for six months and return home for a year.

"It concerns me mostly about the stress on the force, on the individuals, and on the equipment," Neller said.

Neller named recruiting and retaining capable Marines the highest priority of the service in an order issued at the start of the year. The Marine Corps relies on recruiting new young talent each year to fill out its ranks. The service must recruit roughly 33,000 or 34,000 new Marines each year, Neller said, and six in 10 Marines are under the age of 25.

Training new service members is also more time consuming than ever because of technology and other developments on the modern battlefield. Today’s Marines must understand not only how to use various technologies but also how to operate without them in the event that an adversary interferes with communication networks or other advanced systems that the service uses.

"It takes a little bit longer to [train]," Neller said. "It used to be you could take somebody out on recruit training, they know how to fire their rifle, they’re physically fit, and they can carry a load and you put them in an infantry unit and they could function. I think we’re beyond that. The complexity, even at that level—let alone all the other levels—it takes a certain level of intelligence and ability to be trained."

"We have to leverage the technology that we have; it gives us operational advantage. But at the same time—which makes training even harder—you have to work through or be prepared for when it’s not there," Neller explained. "And I believe we are building that into our requirements and we are building that into our training."

The Marine commandant discussed the effort underway to change the service’s force structure to adapt to the modern battlefield at the forum in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Neller said that the service is looking at adding capability sets in cyber warfare, information operations, electronic warfare, and intelligence collection, among other changes.

He said several hundred Marines are currently working to reconcile two courses of action laid out earlier this year, which the Washington Free Beacon previously reported could result in an overhaul at all levels of the service. Potential adversaries such as China and Russia have increasingly turned to cyber and information warfare to wield influence. Neller said adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan have also demonstrated proficiency in using cyber communications and information to advance their interests.

"When you look at even what’s happening on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan now, technology and the ability of even these adversaries that we always sort of considered low-tech … are expanding," Neller explained. "The use of information, the use of social media not just to market their ideas and their ideology but to communicate, their use of unmanned systems, their ability to move and survive, and the ability to use the kind of asymmetric capabilities."

Neller said he assumes that the service will not be able to boost its ranks to accommodate these new capabilities, meaning that cyber or information warfare units will be bolstered at the expense of other areas.

"We are going to reshape it. One thing we are not going to do is we’re not going to stay exactly the same because I don’t think we can," Neller said. "The threats and the capabilities out there are changing too fast and we have to be able to survive on the modern battlefield that will be very different, I believe, than what we’ve been on in the last 15 years."

Neller said that despite the personnel challenges it faces, he believes the Marine Corps will be able to sustain its current tempo if the service invests in the "right kind" of young people and has enough troops to schedule deployments at the two-to-one rate.

"I believe that if we can find and recruit the right kind of people—which is really our center of gravity, the people that we have that are willing to stick their hand up in the air and say they want to become a United States Marine—I think we’ll be fine," Neller said.