Why a national cyber academy is a bad idea

GettyImages.com/ Ariel Skelley

A cybersecurity academy modeled on the military academies isn't an efficient use of resources, but rather ROTC programs are a better option.

The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act calls on the Defense Department to study the feasibility of creating a national cyber academy in the mold of the U.S. military academy institutions.

Championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a national academy would help the government recruit cyber and tech talent. I don't disagree with Gillibrand’s motivation.

“The need for an effective, talented, and diverse cyber workforce for the U.S. government has never been clearer, but the workers simply aren’t there,” Gillibrand said in a statement published by FCW.com.

But I disagree with her solution. A national academy would require a ton of years and resources to bear fruit. Instead, those resources could drive the development of new cyber and technology programs at colleges and universities across the United States.

The military academy model is revered more for what we think it delivers than what they actually deliver. There is no evidence that officers produced by the military academies are better than officers who are produced by ROTC programs.

Colin Powell was not a graduate of West Point. He was a product of the ROTC program at City College of New York.

There is little doubt that there is parity between the military academies and ROTC programs but the gap -- and it’s a tremendous gap -- appears when looking at the cost differences.

It is hard to argue that the money spent on the military academies are worth it. Here’s a scathing indictment from a few years ago that appeared in the Washington Post: Abolish West Point – and the other service academies too.

I thought of that article when I read the FCW story on the cyber academy proposal. The Government Accountability Office produced a study on workforce challenges following a request by Gillibrand.

GAO did a good job describing the challenges agencies face in developing a tech-savvy workforce and how a digital academy could help.

But it doesn’t consider whether the cost justifies the benefit and whether there are more efficient ways to spend the money.

The most recent study I could find breaking down the cost per student to operate the military academies is a 2003 GAO report.

West Point was the most expensive at $349,327 a year as of 2002. The Air Force Academy costs $322,750 a year, followed by the Naval Academy at $275,001. Each had been growing at about $10,000 a year over the previous three years.

There is no reason to think the per student cost hasn’t continued to rise.

It makes me question whether the military academies are the right model to address a workforce shortage. Why not take the money and create a cyber ROTC? This would teach the needed skills while exposing students to the mission of government. It would create the pipeline that agencies crave.

It would also offer the flexibility to change directions and focus as needed, rather than creating another institution.

A standalone cyber academy just isn’t the right answer.