Washington Pressured to Elevate Cyber Command in War on ISIL

For months, experts have recommended boosting the stature of Cyber Command to help speed its fight against ISIL. According to a report, progress may be coming.

Pentagon Cyber Command Unit

As cyber-defense becomes an increasingly integral part of our national security, military officials have recommended elevating the stature of the Pentagon's Cyber Command Unit to a so-called "unified command," putting it at equal ranking with other combat branches of the military and better preparing it to fight cyber-attacks and develop cyber-weapons.

According to an Aug. 7 report from Reuters, which cited current and former Obama administration officials, the decision may happen sooner than later.

The administration is "constantly reviewing if we have the appropriate organizational structures in place to counter evolving threats, in cyber-space or elsewhere," a senior official told Reuters. The report added that while it's unclear when the plan will be presented to President Obama for final approval, a senior source said that no one is expected to stop it.

The report noted that the change would also give Cyber Command leaders more say in both offensive and defensive tactics, and separate it more from the surveillance-driven National Security Agency (NSA).

Currently, Cyber Command is part of the U.S. Strategic Command, one of nine unified commands in the Department of Defense.

Elevating Cyber Command

Last fall, the Senate Armed Services Committee "heard testimony from witnesses who recommended elevating Cyber Command to a full unified command," the Defense Department website reported April 5.

In January, Defense Secretary Ash Carter encouraged Cyber Command to "intensify the fight" against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Meeting with Carter in January, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters, "The effort to accelerate the campaign to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL includes targeting their use of the internet to spread their message of hate, recruit fighters and inspire acts of terror."

On April 5, Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers, commander of Cyber Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that what determines whether to elevate a unit's designation "[are] the imperatives of unity of command and unity of effort and ... in this case … [whether] the function rises to a global level and is it of sufficient priority to merit coordination across the entire department."

He added that speed is also an issue.

"[The] department's processes of budget prioritization, strategy and policy are all generally structured to enable direct combatant commander input into those processes," Roger said. "That's what they're optimized for. I believe that Cyber needs to be a part of that direct process."

Rogers also told the committee that a Cyber Mission Force, consisting of 23 national mission teams, 68 cyber-protection teams, 27 combat mission teams and 25 support teams, will be fully operational by the end of September 2018.

On June 22, Air Force Lt. Gen. James K. McLaughlin testified before the committee about the Cyber Mission Force, asking for additional infrastructure.

"Ongoing efforts to develop tools, such as the persistent training environment, the unified platform, cyber situational awareness and the joint information environment, must continue to be resourced," McLaughlin said. "These capabilities are critical in ensuring our cyber-warriors are equipped to counter sophisticated and dynamic adversaries."

The Washington Post reported July 15 that Pentagon leaders were "frustrated" by the pace of cyber efforts to combat ISIL.

"[Cyber Command] has not been as effective as the department would expect them to be, and they're not as effective as they need to be," a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Post. "They need to deliver results."