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Armed forces minister wants military recruiters to "think different" to attract cyber security pros

Armed Forces minister Mike Penning says military must rethink how it recruits trainees to attract people with the cyber security skills the country needs to protect itself

The Armed Forces must tweak its entry requirements to attract and retain recruits who can help the UK remain on the front foot when it comes to tackling cyber threats in a military context.

Speaking at the Cyberspace and the Transformation of 21st Century Warfare Symposium in Westminster, Mike Penning, minister of state for the Armed Forces, said the traditional training and recruitment methods used by the military may prove off-putting for skilled cyber security experts.

“The traditional way, [with the focus on] the physical capabilities and the sort of specialities we recruited for, is completely different now to the sort of people we need to recruit into our cyber defence,” he said.

“We need to think radically out of the box. There will be young people who desperately want to help, who perhaps physically [wouldn’t] be able to go through rigorous training.

“They desperately want to help but they don’t want to be in that frontline combat role, and we need to encourage them to be with us. We need to reach out and encourage them to be part of the defensive environment.”

Few could have predicted the size and scale of the cyber threats the country is facing now, he said, which is why such a tweak of its recruitment policies is needed.

“To think the damage to our economy and lives of the citizens worldwide we’re trying to protect could be so dramatically affected, sometimes by a single individual [or] a state, destroying our economy, we would never have predicted that,” he said.

“Sometimes the best form of defence is attack. While we need to defend ourselves from the state and groups of individuals from cyber attacks, we also need to be on the front foot to make sure we [have the right] capabilities, in the same way we would for any military requirement.”

The way cyber warfare unfolds is very different to traditional combat, added Gordon Messenger, vice-chief of defence staff, and the armed forces needs more people in its ranks who understand that.

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“Cyber, as a domain, challenges our norms, our doctrine, our culture and our way of working. While we have adapted reasonably quickly to those challenges, I don’t think anyone would say we haven’t got a long way to go, and we are – in some cases – in unchartered territory,” said Messenger.

For example, cyber warfare is unbound by geographic borders, while the rules adversaries play by and the targets they go after are often difficult to predict.

“We [the armed forces] like the fact that if you fire a projectile from a tank, it is going to go up to 2km and have this kind of effect on its target. You don’t have that predictability and confidence in the cyber domain as the physical domain. That is uncomfortable, but we need to accept it,” he said.

“The other thing is we like is geographically defined problem sets. We like international borders as a way of delineating different responses, while cyber knows no such boundaries, and we need to be used to working truly internationally and truly virtually.”

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