The U.S. military’s Cyber Command (or Cybercom) was upgraded on Friday to that of a “unified combatant command,” the first step toward its separation from the National Security Agency. Defense Secretary James Mattis will shortly recommend the appointment to President Donald Trump of a senior officer to serve as commander of Cybercom, separate from the NSA.
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Down the line, after the appointment receives Senate approval, the Trump administration will have to convince Congress that both entities have developed sufficient independent capabilities to carry out their responsibilities alone.
In the first stage, U.S. Strategic Command’s oversight of Cybercom will be removed. Despite it being called a command unit, until now Cyber Command has been subordinate in the Pentagon’s structure, reporting to Strategic Command – whose main function is nuclear deterrence and preparedness for war.
From now on, Cybercom will be one of 10 unified combatant commands in the U.S. military. The nine others include the six regional commands – Europe; the Pacific; Central (responsible for the Middle East, including Iran and Afghanistan); Northern (the United States and Canada); Southern (Latin America); and Africa – as well as three other specialized commands: Strategic, Special Operations and Transportation.
The intention to separate the intelligence-gathering agency from Cybercom stems from the distinction between two military efforts in the same realm and requires the need to decide between alternatives.
The new plan revives and revises the directive by former President Barack Obama last December (during the transitional period), which he issued without consulting the incoming president. Obama had hoped to conclude his eight years at the White House with another demonstration of the importance of Cybercom, which was first established at the NSA in 2009. But his directive was suspended, in part due to the strong opposition of Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an adversary of both Obama and Trump.
McCain’s demand to ensure that the separation of Cybercom from the NSA would not impair their operational capabilities, due to organizational infighting and a shortage of skilled manpower, was included in the defense budget legislation.
McCain welcomed Friday’s announcement over the weekend, but only on condition that his demands be met. The candidate for the head of Cyber Command is expected to make that commitment to McCain in an armed services committee hearing.
The change to the Cybercom structure is arousing great interest from within the Israel Defense Forces, which is also trying to decide how to delineate the seam lines between intelligence-gathering and defense-offense.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who is considering upgrading the status of this new combat realm to make it equal to the ground, air, naval, intelligence and logistics forces, visited NSA headquarters and Cyber Command in Fort Meade, Maryland, last year for a discussion with Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who commands both organizations.
Israel’s C4I branch – the successor, since the beginning of the previous decade, to the old Computer Services Directorate – has incorporated “and cybersecurity” into its Hebrew name. Other cybersecurity activities have remained in Unit 8200, the Israeli intelligence equivalent to the NSA. Its chief holds the rank of brigadier general.
The Pentagon built its cybersecurity network from the bottom up, in the headquarters of the air, naval and ground forces – under the overall responsibility of the NSA. By doing so, it was able to combine the efforts of each of the separate forces, which was a kind of recreation of the establishment of the NSA itself after World War II as a military-civilian body that combined the parallel activities of the ground and naval forces and the State Department (after coordination failures between them contributed to the intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor in 1941). But it also encountered the entanglement of subordination and ranks in the Defense Department and the military.
The NSA is headed by a three-star general or admiral, equivalent to a lieutenant general in the Israeli army. That’s the rank of commanders of combat-supporting agencies in the Pentagon. When Rogers was appointed, he was initially awarded only a third star, but as head of Cyber Command he received a fourth star, like his predecessor. During normal times, as opposed to world wars, that’s the highest rank possible in the U.S. military, and is held by only 40 officers; it is a respected status symbol in the security community.
As the head of an intelligence agency, the NSA commander is subordinate to the secretary of defense through the under-secretary of defense for intelligence – one of the many jobs in the top echelons of the Pentagon that Trump has yet to fill. The commander’s efforts are coordinated by the director of National Intelligence, who reports directly to the president.
This situation is compounded by Rogers’ subordination, as the head of Cybercom, to an officer of equal rank. Although this situation is familiar from Korea and Afghanistan, where the commanders of U.S. forces – four-star generals – are subordinate to generals of equal rank in the Pacific and Central Command, Rogers’ situation is more complicated.
The separation of Cyber Command and the NSA will partially solve this entanglement.
It is also likely to lead, for the first time, to the appointment of a civilian to head the NSA. The agency is described as “national,” which means jointly military and civilian – and civilians already head other intelligence agencies in the Pentagon.
Rogers, who has held his dual position for almost three and a half years, will probably be replaced first in Cyber Command and then later also at the NSA.