Big changes are in motion for U.S. Cyber Command. The Trump Administration announced plans to elevate the service to independent command status, on par with other commands across the military. There is also wide-spread speculation regarding when the expected split of Cyber Command from the NSA will occur.
“The elevation of United States Cyber Command demonstrates our increased resolve against cyberspace threats and will help reassure our allies and partners and deter our adversaries,” President Trump said last week.
Historically, cyber operations have been somewhat stovepiped, and not integrated smoothly in-theater. Becoming its own command will make it easier to integrate cyber teams and capabilities into ongoing operations, allowing commanders to use cyber as needed. For example, the DoD has publicly acknowledged conducting offensive cyber operations against ISIS for the past few years.
The goal is for all aspects of cyber capability – defensive, offensive and intelligence gathering – to be offered to commanders as another “tool” to use based on tactical need:
“Just like air, land, sea and maritime power projections, what we’re working with the combatant commands to do is project power in, from and through cyber, integrate it in their battle plans so it’s timing and tempo is set by the commanders in the field based on the scheme of maneuver that they have on the ground,” Maj. Gen. Christopher Weggeman, commander of 24th Air Force/Air Forces Cyber, said in a recent interview.
The move to split off Cyber Command from the NSA reflects the realities of diverging missions. The NSA is typically focused on covert intelligence gathering, while as described above Cyber Command is increasingly being called upon to provide tactical capabilities in the field.
The move is actually mandated by language contained in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, but the exact process and timing remain unclear. The move has been discussed since the latter stages of the Obama Administration.
Patrick Tucker at Defense One published a deep dive into the background issues around this anticipated split last week. The story quotes Bill Leigher, who helped stand up Navy Fleet Cyber Command and who now directs government cyber solutions for the contractor Raytheon:
“If you are collecting intelligence, it’s foreign espionage. You don’t want to get caught. The measure of success is: ‘collect intelligence and don’t get caught.’ If you’re going to war, I would argue that the measure of performance is’ what we do has to have the characteristics of a legal weapon in the context of war and the commander has to know what he or she uses it.”
Change is never easy in a large organization, and the challenge is multiplied when dealing with an ever-evolving environment such as cyberspace. The DoD should be commended for recognizing the changing mission of Cyber Command, and creating the organizational structure that best serves the mission.
With our adversaries aggressively looking to leverage cyberspace against our country, an independent Cyber Command is the best way to give commanders the tools they need to respond.