President Trump has directed that Cyber Command, the Pentagon’s offensive cyber-force, will become its own unified military command in a move that is meant to strengthen cyberspace operations and bolster U.S. defenses.
“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,” Trump said in a statement Friday.
CyberCom was formed in 2009 from two smaller organizations subordinate to Strategic Command, the same military body responsible for U.S. missile defenses. Since its beginning, it has been led by the director of the NSA, currently Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers.
Trump’s move means Cyber Command will become the 10th unified command in the U.S. military, putting it on par with the main combatant commands, such as Central Command.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security Kenneth P. Rapuano told reporters Friday that Trump’s announcement was only the beginning of a process. Rapuano said that before CyberCom can become a unified command, a new leader must be nominated and confirmed.
Currently, he said, there is no timeline for Rogers to be replaced as head of CyberCom. To head the new command, he would have to be renominated and confirmed. For at least another year, because of congressional requirements, it is expected that the head of the command and the NSA director will be the same person.
Rapuano added that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been directed to recommend a candidate for the role.
Rapuano called the move “a natural next step” for the command.
“United States Cyber Command’s elevation will also help streamline command and control of time-sensitive cyberspace operations by consolidating them under a single commander with authorities commensurate with the importance of such operations,” Trump said in the statement. “Elevation will also ensure that critical cyberspace operations are adequately funded.”
Until the past year or two, CyberCom has focused mostly on defending military networks and building up its mission forces. But in late 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter directed the command to undertake a campaign against the Islamic State’s digital networks. In late 2016, the command also carried out a clandestine campaign to sabotage the Islamic State’s online videos and propaganda. Both have had mixed results.
Trump also said that Mattis is “examining the possibility” of separating the leadership of CyberCom from that of the NSA — or splitting the “dual hat” relationship — and that he will announce recommendations on that possibility “at a later date.”
Rapuano told reporters it is possible that a civilian might be placed in that job.
Severing the relationship between the intelligence agency and the cyber fighting force is the more challenging and controversial task. CyberCom is housed at Fort Meade, Md., which is the NSA’s headquarters. The command is still dependent on the spy agency for capabilities and intelligence.
Because of concerns about the command’s ability to flourish on its own, Congress has required that separation from the NSA take place only after Pentagon leadership certify that the command can be just as effective when it is no longer under the wing of the NSA.
Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), both outspoken lawmakers on defense issues, praised Trump’s decision.
“While we welcome this elevation, there is much more to be done to prepare our nation and our military to meet our cybersecurity challenges,” McCain said in a statement. “We must develop a clear policy and strategy for deterring and responding to cyber threats.”
Eric Rosenbach, who served as Carter’s chief of staff, praised the elevation decision and said he looked forward to the command’s eventual separation from NSA.
“It is very important down the road for Cyber Command to develop its own unique capabilities and gain independence from NSA so that it’s a true warfighting command and not an organization subservient to the intelligence community, said Rosenbach, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is running a project to defend digital democracy.