CAPITOL HILL: The four service cyber commands want to move personnel and resources from routine network operations — the classic IT jobs — to online attack and defense executed with a “warrior” mentality, their senior officers told Congress yesterday afternoon.

Increasingly “these men and women view themselves as warriors,” Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, chief of the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command, told the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on emerging threats. That mindset is critical to motivating and retaining technically skilled personnel who could easily find high-paying civilian jobs, even in this economy, but who couldn’t find such a sense of mission outside the armed service.

“This idea of cyber-warrior is critical,” agreed Lt. Gen. Rhett Hernandez, head of Army Cyber Command. “They see themselves as warriors.”

Yet the reality right now is that the vast majority of the tens of thousands of personnel assigned to the cyber commands do pretty mundane IT jobs. That’s something commanders want to change.

“With 75% of our workforce actually oriented on operating the networks day to day, that’s… out of whack,” Vice Adm. Rogers said frankly. It reflects a “very dated,” manpower-intensive approach to operations that requires lots of personnel to runs lots of scattered servers. Consolidating and centralizing into a “cloud” approach, Rogers and Hernandez both said, will free up personnel from running the networks to actually defending them — and, perhaps, attacking adversaries’ systems.

One of the more warlike applications of cyberspace is that the military is probing is own networks for vulnerabilities. The Air Force cyber command — 24th Air Force, aka Air Force Network Operations — is working with Transportation Command in particular, “proactively discovering vulnerabilities before they can be exploited” by real enemies, said Air Force cyber chief Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot. The Navy also has a cyber “red team” to test its own networks. And the Army has a full-fledged “cyber opposing force,” or OPFOR, that simulates an attacking enemy in exercises, teaching Army units how to defend their networks and how to keep functioning after an enemy has degraded them.

The four cyber commands that testified today have a dual role, both supporting their respective services’ networks and acting as the service components of US Cyber Command, which is co-located with the National Security Agency. The Air Force’s is the largest, with approximately 17,000 civilian and military personnel; the Navy has 14,000, the Army 11,000, and the Marine Corps — who rely mainly on Navy-run networks like the Navy-MarineCorps Intranet (NMCI) — only a few hundred.

All these commands have been growing rapidly and remain a priority even as budgets contract, but sequestration threatens even cyber. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the subcommittee chairman, asked how a sequester would impact the witnesses’ commands. Both the Navy’s Rogers and the Army’s Hernandez replied that it would be bad but they were not planning for it. The Marine Corps representative, Deputy Commandant Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, was more expressive, saying that the impact on cyber operations would be “disproportionate,” relative to other areas of the Marine Corps, “because of the speed with which we have to acquire new equipment and new software” to keep up with the fast-moving cyber world. Air Force Maj. Gen. Vautrinot said sequestration would be simply “disastrous”. Not only would the service cyber command be unable to field new capabilities, she said, “I believe we would actually lose ground.”