- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By W01 William John Holden, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
Thomas Ricks asks how modern militaries are structured, and how this structure may change in the face of cultural and technological developments.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps is designed according to a traditional military recruiting, training, and manning structure. A foundational assumption is that most Signal work can be performed by semi-skilled Privates, under the supervision of skilled Sergeants, and that the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), Signal Officer, and Warrant Officer plans and supervises operations from the Battalion and Brigade-level. Most Signal tasks are at “Skill Level 1” and can be satisfactorily taught to anyone during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
I challenge these assumptions. Preparing, planning, designing, implementing, operating, and optimizing secure systems and networks requires aptitude, training, and experience. Most Signal Corps tasks are not “Skill Level 1,” and doctrine trails far behind an ever-evolving industry. The Army’s personnel development strategy is best suited to stable, long-lived technologies with minor incremental updates, such as an M-16 or UH-60. Nothing lives long in the tech industry, and we don’t do minor incremental updates. Remember Blackberry? That was before your new Platoon Sergeant went to Drill Sergeant School a few years ago.
Historically, the Signal Corps needed a large number of semi-skilled technicians to run cables, operate switchboards and radios, and service electronics. Today, defense communications largely ride the commercially-operated national network infrastructure and commercial satellites. Switchboards literally operate themselves. Modern radios are high-tech, intuitive, and reliable. When those radios break, units take the equipment to a contracted field service representative.
The traditional military structure of the Signal Corps is no failure — it is simply a legacy of an era slowly coming to an end. Manufacturing used to employ thousands of unskilled workers, but scaled labor down with advances in engineering, computing, and robotics. The factory worker of today is anything but unskilled.
The voice switchboard is great example of a Signal technology that no longer requires a large, traditional military hierarchy. The Signal Corps of the past employed thousands of switchboard operators. Today, a single highly-qualified technician administers Voice over IP (VoIP) call manager or Private Branch Exchange (PBX), which automates all voice connections. Voice administration is now typically handled by a single NCO, warrant officer, or contractor at many Brigades and Commands.
Computing, networking, and security all stand to follow the same path as voice: we need fewer junior enlisted Soldiers and need more highly-trained experts. The Special Operations community decided years ago to invest heavily in NCO’s and Officers, using a rigorous selection and training process to produce qualified, mature, and trustworthy operators. The Signal Corps and future Cyber Corps might benefit from taking the same approach.
Everyone talks about the dreaded “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” What can be done to prevent it? What will the response be if it happens? If I may borrow two “truths” from the Special Operations community:
—“hackers cannot be mass-produced”
—“competent hackers cannot be created after emergencies occur.”
William John Holden is a U.S. Army Signal Warrant Officer at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He deployed to Iraq (2007-2008) and supported U.S. forces in Singapore and the Philippines (2010-2013). The statements reflected in this article are completely his own and do not reflect those of his unit, the Army, or the United States Department of Defense.