• Building our nation’s cyber force:  Lessons from aviation’s beginnings
    Building our nation’s cyber force:  Lessons from aviation’s beginnings
Published on
Feb 17, 2022

By Frank C. DiGiovanni, Agile Operational Technology Director at Parallax Advanced Research

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the post are those of the author and not Parallax and/or the U.S. Government. The article was originally published here prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The internet has transformed our way of life, but it has also made us vulnerable to a whole new set of national security threats. Three administrations have warned that the nature of cyber-attacks is ever-evolving, and we need to maintain our ability to take decisive action against this increasingly dangerous threat. As a nation we have done a great deal to counter cyber-attacks, however, the increasing danger demands that we do more, including recent saber-rattling by the Russians concerning the West’s intervention in Ukraine.

The information age is not the first era in which disruptive technology has presented a new threat to our security. The dawn of aviation was equally transformative. By World War I, aviation had added a new dimension to warfare with aerial reconnaissance and maritime scouting. As aviation matured, the great world powers realized that airpower could bypass conventional battle lines and strike directly against civilian populations and infrastructure with deadly and destructive force. Cyber-attacks are potentially just as deadly and destructive, but stealthier, invisibly penetrating with a constant stream of zeroes and ones that saturate our digital information networks.

In World War I, airpower was initially assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps and used chiefly for intelligence gathering, scouting, and reconnaissance, which were also notably the first military application of cyber technologies. Airpower came of age between the World Wars, as both the Army and the Navy seized upon its potential as an offensive weapon. The U.S. was not alone in this realization. The Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor demonstrated that the U.S homeland could be threatened by carrier-based aviation. Despite a general outcry after the attack to build defensive airfields to defend the homeland, the U.S. Army and Navy focused instead on accelerating the effort to develop an offensive aviation force that had begun three years earlier.

For example, between 1938 and 1944, Maj. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the Air Corps, from 20,196 personnel in June 1938 to 2,372,293 in June 1944. The demand for aviators at this time greatly outstripped supply, much as is the case with cyber operators today. Arnold achieved this incredible expansion of the force in part through public-private partnerships with military-certified civilian flight schools, which fed recruits into advanced military flight training programs. The benefits of this massive training enterprise extended beyond World War II when former military pilots and mechanics became the backbone of the U.S. commercial aviation industry well into the 1990s.

The rapid growth of U.S. military aviation in both the Army and Navy between the World Wars offers a blueprint for how we should build our nation’s cyber force to respond to the disruptive effects of today’s cyber threat:

First, surge to build the cyber force. Hap Arnold grew the Air Corps by one-hundred-fold in six years. Leading cyber experts suggest we have as few as 1,000 highly-skilled cyber “Jedi” working across both government and the private sector today. Aviation history suggests we may need a hundred-fold increase—100,000—to adequately deter and defeat the threat.

Second, promote expanded cyber public-private partnerships. Just as the U.S government partnered with civilian flight schools to teach aviation basics, the military should expand its partnership with community colleges and technical programs to recruit and train cyber apprentices. These apprentices would then feed the advanced military cyber training programs.

Third, invest in offensive cyber operators and capabilities that can perform both functions, rather than pure defensive capabilities. A reactive defensive stance puts us behind the threat. A strong offensive stance serves as a potent deterrent and ensures equal, if not superior, capabilities compared to the adversary. Further, as Arnold advocated with aviation, focus on building the cyber training infrastructure and learning practices necessary to field a viable cyber force. Defense is essential, but a trained and ready offensive force is paramount.

And finally, foster a Marine Corps-like cyber corps culture. Our cyber corps training should borrow heavily from the U.S. Marine Corps ethos to create a sense of elite capability, and lifelong esprit de corps. Size the cyber corps training pipeline for 75 percent attrition after their initial four-year tour. This matches the U.S. Marine Corps’ first tour attrition and allows Department of Defense trained cyber “Jedi” to enter the private sector in large numbers, boosting the resiliency of American private institutions, just as military-trained aviators and mechanics since the end of WWII have helped build and sustain the commercial aviation industry.

We are now where the Air Corps and the Navy were in 1938 in terms of the size of our skilled cyber force. The time is now to learn from the legacy of our nation’s rich aviation history and issue a new “call to arms” to galvanize today’s generation to duty. We must be bold and decisive. The cyber threat from our adversaries is insidious and hidden but poses a danger we must confront right now with the full might of our nation.

About the author:

Dr. Frank DiGiovanni has 41 years of government service and 26 years as a U.S. Air Force officer holding aviation ratings as a B-52H navigator and F-15A and A-37B pilot. He retired from the Air Force at the rank of colonel. Dr. DiGiovanni also held several commands, director, and staff positions across the Air Force related to training policy, advanced training technologies, and sustaining the military's access to the land, sea, and air training resources. He has served three operational deployments with the last in Pakistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). Dr. DiGiovanni is a member of the Department of Defense ( ) and Navy Senior Executive Service, serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for 11 years as the deputy director, where he was responsible for the programming and execution of the $900 million the   invests in worldwide joint training and training technologies. Today, Dr. DiGiovanni is the Agile Operational Technology Director at Parallax Advanced Research where he is charged with facilitating the transition of technologies from the labs and academia to the private sector and with tech scanning to identify and connect needed technology from the private sector with warfighting needs in the government.