Trump Elevates Status of U.S. Cyber Command

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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.”

The presidential directive to raise the status of Cyber Command is by no means the result of any new Trump policy. Congress had pushed for this to happen for years. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act explicitly obligates the Pentagon to make Cybercom a “fully independent unified combatant command.”

At a Pentagon news conference, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security Kenneth Rapuano insisted that the reorganization was not in response to Russia’s hacking or any particular incident.

Rapuano said the Trump directive is simply the next chapter in the evolution of Cyber Command since its establishment in 2009. “This step will make the command even more agile and strengthen its voice in the department.”

As a stand-alone unified command, Cybercom would have enhanced authorities to budget resources, train workers, plan and execute operations. “This is particularly relevant to time-sensitive operations,” said Rapuano.

Another prerequisite from the 2017 NDAA was for Cyber Command to create a “cyber mission force” of 133 teams made up of about 5,000 network defenders. The force needs to be in place before any decision is made to break up the command from the NSA, Rapuano said. “We need to meet the requirement of section 1642 of the NDAA, which stipulates that the mission capabilities of Cyber Command and NSA cannot be negatively impacted by the separation.”

Officials said the cyber mission force is on track to be fully operational by the end of 2018, when the ranks are projected to grow to nearly 6,200.

The split from the NSA has been a third rail as the agency has domestic wiretapping and surveillance authorities that the military does not. The dual-hat arrangement was thought to make sense when Cybercom was first stood up and needed to leverage NSA’s assets and skills. President Obama in 2016 said the two organizations “should have separate leaders who are able to devote themselves to each organization's respective mission and responsibilities.”

Rapuano rebuffed suggestions that Trump’s move to elevate Cyber Command was in any way orchestrated to force the departure of current commander and NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers. “Admiral Rogers has the total confidence of Secretary Mattis,” he said. As to who would replace Rogers, “the president simply has asked for a recommendation from the secretary of defense. It could be any flag or general officer.”

A separation decision has not been made yet, said Rapuano. “There is no explicit timeline for that.”

The new four-star leader would continue the dual-hat setup but, unlike Rogers, he or she would gain the much more prestigious status of “combatant commander.”

The creation of a brand-new “unified combatant command” is in and of itself an extraordinary event. The last time that happened was in 2007 when President George W. Bush created U.S. Africa Command.

There are nine combatant commands, six of which have geographic areas of responsibility: U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Southern Command. The other three have particular missions: U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Strategic Command.

U.S. Cyber Command, based at Fort Meade, Md., will be joining the list and will no longer report to U.S. Strategic Command, based at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb.

Rapuano was tight-lipped about the future of the NSA. Despite significant overlap, NSA and Cyber Command largely operate under different legal authorities. NSA’s powers to conduct espionage come from Title 50 of the U.S. code, whereas Cyber Command operates under Title 10 authorities.

Analyst Emma Kohse pointed out that a presidential panel convened by Obama to evaluate the NSA after the 2013 Snowden leaks reported a “pressing need to clarify the distinction between the combat and intelligence collection missions,” and recommended appointing separate heads to remedy this line-blurring problem.

Rogers in 2016 said he viewed the split as inevitable.

"I've been very public about saying I believe in the long run the right thing is to keep these two aligned but to separate them,” he told an industry conference in Washington. "I just think you need two people, full-time, focused on this, but even as we do that, you're going need to keep these closely aligned."

If, when and how the separation occurs is now a matter for Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford to resolve. Rapuano said the key issue is to ensure the Pentagon complies with the NDAA mandate to not undermine the mission of either agency. “Only at that point, when they certify conditions have been met, will the split happen.”

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Army Cyber Command in 2015, described the two organizations as having a “maturing” relationship. “I think at the end of day we will always be focused on creating effects, and rightly so. NSA is focused on foreign intelligence and information assurance. It’s a rich partnership.”

Sandra Erwin is a national security and defense reporter for RealClearDefense. She can be reached at Follow Sandra on Twitter @Sandra_I_Erwin.

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