President Donald Trump has approved a long-delayed Pentagon plan to create an independent and more aggressive cyber command in order to beef up cyberwar operations against the Islamic State group and other foes.
The White House announcement Friday means U.S. Cyber Command may eventually be split off from the intelligence-focused National Security Agency.
For now, Trump has agreed to raise the stature of Cyber Command within the military and give it more autonomy. He did not say who would serve as commander of the organization.
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"This new Unified Combatant Command will strengthen our cyberspace operations and create more opportunities to improve our nation's defense," Trump said in a written statement. "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."
Making cyber an independent military command will put the fight in digital space on the same footing as more traditional realms of battle on land, in the air, at sea and in space. The move reflects the escalating threat of cyberattacks and intrusions from other nation states, terrorist groups and hackers, and comes as the U.S. faces ever-widening fears about Russian hacking following Moscow's efforts to meddle in the 2016 American election.
The goal is to give Cyber Command more autonomy, freeing it from any constraints that stem from working alongside the NSA, which is responsible for monitoring and collecting telephone, internet and other intelligence data from around the world — a responsibility that can sometimes clash with military operations against enemy forces.
The plan has been languishing since last year when then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter sent a proposal to President Barack Obama to make Cyber Command an independent military headquarters and break it away from the NSA. At the time, he believed that the NSA's desire to collect intelligence was preventing the military from eliminating IS' ability to raise money, inspire attacks and command its widely dispersed network of fighters.
After Trump's inauguration, officials said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis endorsed much of the plan. But debate over details dragged on for months.
Officials say the Pentagon plan sent to the White House calls for Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville to be nominated to lead Cyber Command, although that has not been announced. Leadership of the NSA could be turned over to a civilian.
The U.S. has long operated quietly in cyberspace, using it to collect information, disrupt enemy networks and aid conventional military missions. But as other nations and foes expand their use of cyberspying and attacks, the U.S. is determined to improve its ability to incorporate cyber operations into its everyday warfighting.
The NSA, however, has a great deal of expertise, and officials acknowledge it will take some time for a more independent Cyber Command to get up to speed. Until then, Cyber Command and NSA will operate under a single, "dual-hatted" military commander. The cyber operation currently relies on the NSA's expertise, staff and equipment.
The two highly secretive organizations, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, have been under the same four-star commander since Cyber Command's creation in 2009.
But the Defense Department has been agitating for a separation, perceiving the NSA and intelligence community as resistant to more aggressive cyberwarfare, particularly after the Islamic State's transformation in recent years from an obscure insurgent force into an organization holding significant territory across Iraq and Syria and with a worldwide recruiting network.
While the military wanted to attack IS networks, intelligence objectives prioritized gathering information from them, according to U.S. officials familiar with the debate. They weren't authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly and requested anonymity.
Cyber Command was created by the Obama administration to address threats of cyber espionage and other attacks. It was set up as a sub-unit under U.S. Strategic Command to coordinate the Pentagon's ability to conduct cyberwarfare and to defend its own networks, including those that are used by combat forces in battle.
Officials originally said the new cyber effort would likely involve hundreds, rather than thousands, of new employees.
Since then, the command has grown to more than 700 military and civilian employees. The military services also have their own cyber units, with a goal of having, by Sept. 30, 2018, a total of 133 fully operational teams with as many as 6,200 personnel.