Trump signs off on elevating status of Cyber Command

The Trump administration is officially giving U.S. Cyber Command the coveted status of “unified combatant command,” an extraordinary move that will give the Pentagon unprecedented powers to wage cyberwars.

Under the current structure, Cyber Command reports to U.S. Strategic Command. Trump’s directive means CYBERCOM will report directly to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Exactly when that will happen depends on how soon the president nominates, and the Senate confirms, a new four-star commander.

President Trump announced Friday the decision to elevate Cyber Command, but has deferred a more controversial call on whether to spin off the National Security Agency. Since 2010, Cyber Command has coexisted with the NSA as two organizations under a single four-star director.

Trump said Mattis is “examining the possibility of separating U.S. Cyber Command from the National Security Agency.” The secretary of defense will announce his recommendations on this issue at an unspecified later date.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning said the move reflects the “changing character of threats” as well as the “growing centrality of cyberspace to U.S. national security.”

Source: Real Clear Defense

Analysis: The article went on to note that making Cyber Command a combatant command had been in the works for years, and it’s good that President Trump and the Pentagon have made the move official. Controlling the cyber domain will be vital in any future conflict.

More interesting is what the defense secretary and the president decide regarding the separation of the NSA and Cyber Command. According to the 2017 National Defense Authorization, breaking up Cyber Command and the NSA cannot negatively impact “the mission capabilities of Cyber Command and NSA,” according to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security Kenneth Rapuano. So that means a “cyber mission force” of 133 teams made up of about 5,000 network defenders must be in place before any breakup decision is made.

The NSA and Cyber Command perform two different roles. The NSA is an intelligence-gathering organization focused on national-level security as well as a combatant command support organization; CYBERCOM performs war-fighting tasks; at the time CyberCom was stood up in 2009, it made sense to co-locate it with the NSA because the latter had a plethora of cyber-talent. 

Adm. Mike Rogers, head of the NSA and CyberCom, told lawmakers in May his recommendation would be to split the two. “They’ll still remain closely aligned because Cyber Command and NSA will still continue to work in the same battle space in many ways, so to speak. It will still be a unique relationship,” he said. Defense Secretary Mattis also believes a split would be beneficial, saying in June that “we intend to make this a split that actually gains more unity of effort from a broader constituency, too, from other elements that are also engaged in that counter-cyberthreat.”

Splitting the two agencies appears to be the consensus within defense, cyber and intelligence circles.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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