How the Military Plans to Recruit a New Generation of Soldiers

January 11th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

As the United States military continues to recruit soldiers from an increasingly tech-savvy pool of young people, it's working to create war technologies that work like the smart phones and video games that young people rely on each day. Especially as cyber warfare and drone warfare become major aspects of battle.

Plan X, which is nearing the end of its $110 million, five-year research period, is the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon division tasked with coming up with innovations that expand the military's ability to effectively wage wars. Plan X became public back in 2012 after the Pentagon declared the Internet a legitimate battlefield. The aim of Plan X is to "develop platforms for the Department of Defense (DOD) to plan for, conduct, and assess cyberwarfare in a manner similar to kinetic warfare," according to the the project's website.

So far, DARPA's Plan X has been a success, integrating modern technologies into military systems designed to be approachable to the modern recruit. A cyber attack, which might cause a server to fry or a radar to jam, for example, is as easy as a few taps on a touchscreen. Plan X has even engineered a program to allow remote "warriors" to familiarize themselves with the target by using Oculus Rift, the device also used for 3-D, virtual-reality video game experiences.

If it sounds like Plan X's aim is to create a familiar environment for a younger, tech-savvy generation and equip them with accessible tools of war, well, that's pretty much what's happening. According to Plan X's program manager Frank Pound, quoted in a Wired piece from May of last year, "[t]he genre of people that [the Pentagon's] Cyber Command are working to recruit are fresh out of high school and college...They're going to grow up with the Oculus on their head. We want to adapt to provide that kind of interface."

What is the effect of these battle tactics on soldiers?

But for all of those fresh recruits, what does a specifically tailored and redesigned combat infrastructure exactly mean?

Just as it was difficult to predict what new inventions like the automatic rifle and chemical agents meant for soldiers fighting in the trenches of the first World War, new platforms like touch screens and virtual reality devices present similar roadblocks. There's always a concern that these technologies will desensitize soldiers by putting them far from the action.

Much is unknown about the long-term effects of drone warfare and cyber warfare -- where soldiers fight wars increasingly further from the battlefield. A recent study showed soldiers who operate drones are frequently encountering the typical trauma associated with war -- 17 percent of Predator or Reaper drone operators and 25 percent of Global Hawk unarmed drone operators had symptoms of "clinical distress."

For Millennial veterans of war, the fallout from these technologies will be a huge question moving forward.

What about other countries?

North Korea has an elite unit of "cyber warriors" that reportedly could number 3,000. For a relatively small country of about 25 million people, that number seems high, but cost-effectiveness explains the numbers. Employing people to carry out acts of cyber warfare is a lot more affordable than buying tanks and missiles. But what does this mean for other countries looking to get the most bang for their war bucks? Russia, North Korea, China, among others, have developed programs to train cadets on the strategies of cyber warfare. Cyber warfare has also allowed relatively poor or militarily limp countries to have an increased standing on the international scale.