The fundamental character of war is changing rapidly, and it will be up to the U.S. military’s youngest leaders to figure out how to successfully fight the next wars, the Army’s top officer said.

“For those of you in the military who are 25 years old or younger, captains or below, this is going to be a fundamental, significant change that you are going to have to come to grips with, and you are going to have to lead the way,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Tuesday at the International Conference on Cyber Conflict in Washington, D.C.

Milley spoke directly to the many young soldiers in the audience, including West Point cadets, at the conference presented by the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy and the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. The audience also included military leaders, government civilians and innovators from the cyber industry.

“People my age do not have the answer,” Milley said. “We have enough brains, I suppose, to recognize the fact that we are in the midst of change. But we are not savvy enough, we are not smart enough, we are not sophisticated enough, and, frankly, we may not be around long enough to implement the actual changes that are going to take place.”

“That rock is going to go in your rucksack, and we are counting on you for the future,” he said.

The talent and technical ability in Army units is going to reside at the lower level for the next generation as they cycle through, Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of Army Cyber Command, said at the conference.

“I don’t know too many Army units where you go in and you say ‘hey, I know that the E-6 knows more about what they’re going to do than the O-6,’ “ Nakasone said.

Those at the O-6 level and above do still have a job, and they have a responsibility in terms of leadership, synchronization and vision, he said. But he keeps thinking of the talent on the way up.

“It’s very interesting to command an organization where the true talent and brain power is certainly not at the top, but at the beginning stages,” Nakasone said. “It’s the lieutenants, it’s the sergeants, the young captains that have this remarkable talent.”

Best and brightest

To recruit cyber talent into the military, Milley pointed to a pilot program that taps the country’s vast pool of brilliant cyber minds to bring them into the officer ranks through direct commissions, which usually have been reserved for doctors and lawyers.

“What we need to do, we the Army, we need to track those best minds,” Milley said.

They may want an opportunity to serve, but the military has not reached out to them effectively, he said.

Rather than bring in a cyber expert as a private, in the old “linear industrial model of promotions,” he said, why not bring them in laterally, and have them serve for 24 or 36 months.

“Let them serve this country, let them do some good for us, and they’ll feel good, we’ll feel good,” Milley said.

The power of the “super empowered individual” is one of the things Nakasone said he has learned about the people component of cyber in the last 12 to 18 months.

Among those doing critical jobs on the teams, “our best ones are 50 or 100 times better than their peers,” Nakasone said. “Is there a sniper or is there a pilot or is there a submarine driver or anyone else in the military 50 times their peer? I would tell you, some coders we have are 50 times their peers.”

For example, a common narrative a year ago was that ISIS could operate in virtual space uncontested. They could push their message and share their propaganda rapidly, Nakasone said, and “there wasn’t much we could do about it.”

But in the past nine to 12 months “we have taken that on, and that narrative is no longer true,” he said.

Army Cyber is contesting their message every day, and behind an Army cyber team is an individual, the one Nakasone calls “that 50-x coder.”

“He’s the one who has come up with the ideas about social media and how to get after ISIS in that space,” he said. “That’s the power of the super empowered individual.”

The Army has moved quickly to stand up its cyber career branch, with nearly 20,000 soldiers so far, and 41 cyber protection teams.

An “incredible amount of work” has gone into creating Army cyber forces, doctrine and strategy in the last few years, and the pace is faster than expected, Nakasone said.

“We are running faster than our headlights,” he said. “We are learning so much we are well forward of where we thought we’d be.”

Machine speed

Warfighters in the cyber domain are operating at a time when the battle space is becoming more lethal, more complex and with machines on the rise.

The military is seeing a convergence of a variety of technologies, such as artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, and, “in combination, I guarantee that they are changing and will change the fundamental character of warfare,” Milley said.

Machine learning opens up potential applications not just for defense but offense, Nakasone said.

“It’s easy to get on a network and look for vulnerability,” he said.

But he can envision a machine that can find a vulnerability, rapidly identify it, work with persistence and do all that at machine speed.

The potential for cyber warfighting may involve a self-healing network, working at machine speed to lock out adversarial persistent threats with a fraction of the workforce used now, Nakasone said.

“Think of the implications for the Army and the nation,” he said.

For the military, it’s not just about the technologies, “but how you use them,” Milley said. It’s a matter of the doctrine, the organizations and the talent, and how you bring them all together, he said.

“We’re not going to get it right,” he said. “What is important is that we get it less wrong than the enemy.”

The key, Milley said, is to have innate ability to innovate faster than the opponent can in the moment, to rapidly adapt and innovate when in contact with the enemy.

The potential adversaries of the U.S. are moving “very, very rapidly,” he said.

“If we, the United States military, are going to preserve this experiment in freedom for the next generation and the generation after, then we too will have to move up smartly, and you can’t move up alone,” Milley said.

The U.S. military is one component of the effort, which will depend on academia, industry and allied and joint partners working together, Milley said.

“This is going to take teamwork and the best minds that America can bring to bear,” he said.