Assessment Of U.S. Cyber Command’s Elevation To Unified Combatant Command

Assessment of U.S. Cyber Command’s Elevation to Unified Combatant Command

Ali Crawford is a current M.A. Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  She studies diplomacy and intelligence with a focus on cyber policy and cyber warfare.  She tweets at @ali_craw.  


Title:  Assessment of U.S. Cyber Command’s Elevation to Unified Combatant Command

Date Originally Written:  September 18, 2017.

Date Originally Published: November 13, 2017.

Summary:  U.S. President Donald Trump instructed the Department of Defense to elevate U.S. Cyber Command to the status of Unified Combatant Command (UCC).  Cyber Command as a UCC could determine the operational standards for missions and possibly streamline decision-making.  Pending Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ nomination, the Commander of Cyber Command will have the opportunity to alter U.S. posturing in cyberspace.

Text:  In August 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to begin initiating Cyber Command’s elevation to a UCC[1].  With the elevation of U.S. Cyber Command there will be ten combatant commands within the U.S. military infrastructure[2].  Combatant commands have geographical[3] or functional areas[4] of responsibility and are granted authorities by law, the President, and the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) to conduct military operations.  This elevation of Cyber Command to become a UCC is a huge progressive step forward.  The character of warfare is changing. Cyberspace has quickly become a new operational domain for war, with battles being waged each day.  The threat landscape in the cyberspace domain is always evolving, and so the U.S. will evolve to meet these new challenges.  Cyber Command’s elevation is timely and demonstrates the Department of Defense’s commitment to defend U.S. national interests across all operational domains.

Cyber Command was established in 2009 to ensure the U.S. would maintain superiority in the cyberspace operational domain.  Reaching full operational capacity in 2010, Cyber Command mainly provides assistance and other augmentative services to the military’s various cyberspace missions, such as planning; coordinating; synchronizing; and preparing, when directed, military operations in cyberspace[5].  Currently, Cyber Command is subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command, but housed within the National Security Agency (NSA).  Cyber Command’s subordinate components include Army Cyber Command, Fleet Cyber Command, Air Force Cyber Command, Marine Forces Cyber Command, and it also maintains an operational relationship with the Coast Guard Cyber Command[6].  By 2018, Cyber Command expects to ready 133 cyber mission force teams which will consist of 25 support teams, 27 combat mission teams, 68 cyber protection teams, and 13 national mission teams[7].

Admiral Michael Rogers of the United States Navy currently heads Cyber Command.  He is also head of the NSA.  This “dual-hatting” of Admiral Rogers is of interest.  President Trump has directed SecDef James Mattis to recommend a nominee to head Cyber Command once it becomes a UCC.  Commanders of Combatant Commands must be uniformed military officers, whereas the NSA may be headed by a civilian.  It is very likely that Mattis will nominate Rogers to lead Cyber Command[8].  Beyond Cyber Command’s current missions, as a UCC its new commander would have the power to alter U.S. tactical and strategic cyberspace behaviors.  The elevation will also streamline the time-sensitive process of conducting cyber operations by possibly enabling a single authority with the capacity to make independent decisions who also has direct access to SecDef Mattis.  The elevation of Cyber Command to a UCC led by a four-star military officer may also point to the Department of Defense re-prioritizing U.S. posturing in cyberspace to become more offensive rather than defensive.

As one can imagine, Admiral Rogers is not thrilled with the idea of splitting his agencies apart.  Fortunately, it is very likely that he will maintain dual-authority for at least another year[9].  The Cyber Command separation from the NSA will also take some time, pending the successful confirmation of a new commander.  Cyber Command would also need to demonstrate its ability to function independently from its NSA intelligence counterpart[10].  Former SecDef Ash Carter and Director of Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper were not fans of Rogers’ dual-hat arrangement.  It remains to be seen what current SecDef Mattis’ or DNI Coats’ think of the “dual hat” arrangement.

Regardless, as this elevation process develops, it is worthwhile to follow.  Whoever becomes commander of Cyber Command, whether it be a novel nominee or Admiral Rogers, will have an incredible opportunity to spearhead a new era of U.S. cyberspace operations, doctrine, and influence policy.  A self-actualized Cyber Command may be able to launch Stuxnet-style attacks aimed at North Korea or speak more nuanced rhetoric aimed at creating impenetrable networks.  Regardless, the elevation of Cyber Command to a UCC signals the growing importance of cyber-related missions and will likely encourage U.S. policymakers to adopt specific cyber policies, all the while ensuring the freedom of action in cyberspace.


Endnotes:

[1] The White House, “Statement by President Donald J. Trump on the Elevation of Cyber Command,” 18 August 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/18/statement-donald-j-trump-elevation-cyber-command

[2] Unified Command Plan. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2017, from https://www.defense.gov/About/Military-Departments/Unified-Combatant-Commands/

[3] 10 U.S. Code § 164 – Commanders of combatant commands: assignment; powers and duties. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2017, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/164

[4] 10 U.S. Code § 167 – Unified combatant command for special operations forces. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2017, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/167

[5] U.S. Strategic Command, “U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM),” 30 September 2016, http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Factsheets/Factsheet-View/Article/960492/us-cyber-command-uscybercom/

[6] U.S. Strategic Command, “U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM),” 30 September 2016, http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Factsheets/Factsheet-View/Article/960492/us-cyber-command-uscybercom/

[7] Richard Sisk, Military, “Cyber Command to Become Unified Combatant Command,” 18 August 2017, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/08/18/cyber-command-become-unified-combatant-command.html

[8] Department of Defense, “The Department of Defense Cyber Strategy,” 2015, https://www.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0415_Cyber-Strategy/

[9] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, “President Trump announces move to elevate Cyber Command,” 18 August 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/08/18/president-trump-announces-move-to-elevate-cyber-command/

[10] Ibid.

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