The UK armed forces have relaxed hiring rules to allow candidates from the private sector to go directly into senior military roles, in a drive to recruit more cyber specialists as warfare expands into the digital realm.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, head of the UK’s Strategic Command, told the Financial Times that while he sometimes envied Israel’s conscription model — which allows defence chiefs to find the best cyber talent from a population-wide pool — the British military was finding new ways to attract tech experts.
“I’m interested in people who may want to come in and spend a bit of time in defence, gain their credentials, their credibility and then move in and out,” said Sanders, who was speaking on the FT’s Rachman Review podcast. “And so that idea of a much more flexible approach to a career in defence, encouraging ‘lateral’ entry, and also looking at people with very different entry standards to what we traditionally expect.”
Strategic Command’s new cyber career strategy will seek to attract more cyber specialists as reservists, as military “regulars” — including for the new National Cyber Force — and as civilian staff. One of the most significant changes is a new “lateral” entry regime, which allows cyber experts to leave industry and transfer directly into senior military ranks without the need to work their way up the hierarchy.
From this summer, all existing members of the armed forces will be offered a cyber aptitude test: those found to have the relevant skills will be offered further training and a career path into a cyber job. Typical roles include electronic warfare specialists, who intercept enemy signals on the battlefield.
Britain’s “cyber power” ambitions were emphasised this month in the government’s defence, security and foreign policy review, which saw a commitment to sharing the UK’s offensive cyber capabilities with Nato allies, and highlighted the importance of the national cyber force staffed jointly by spies and military personnel.
While defence chiefs are keen to bring in tech specialists to counter growing cyber aggression from countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, there is intense competition for candidates with these skills. The UK faces a shortfall of 10,000 skilled cyber professionals this year, according to research by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The military is also keen to emulate the success of the signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, in recruiting people from a neurodiverse background, who may have enhanced cyber abilities. Earlier this month Vice Admiral Nick Hine, the second sea lord, revealed that he is autistic, and appealed to others with the same diagnosis to consider a career in the armed forces.
“Neurodiversity is something that we absolutely welcome because it can lead to incredibly imaginative and effective operators in the cyber roles,” Sanders said.
Joyce Hakmeh, a cyber policy expert at the Chatham House think-tank, said the big question for the public sector had always been “how do you compete with the private sector given the huge difference in compensation? Attracting [cyber experts] has always been one issue, but how do you retain them?”
Sanders insisted, however, there were unique attractions to a military career in cyber. “I do have one thing that gaming companies, and that other commercial organisations who can pay more don’t have, and that is that if you come and join defence . . . working in cyber space, you’re not operating against avatars in a game, you’re operating against real-life threat actors, and nothing can beat that,” he said.