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US Places Cyberattacks on Par With Traditional Warfare Via Cyber Command Reform

© AP Photo / Department of Defense, Cherie CullenEstablished in June 2009, US Cyber Command organizes cyberattacks against adversaries and network defense operations
Established in June 2009, US Cyber Command organizes cyberattacks against adversaries and network defense operations - Sputnik International
Donald Trump's administration is finalizing plans to revolutionize the US' military command for defensive and offensive cyber operations, in hopes of intensifying America's ability to wage cyberwar against foes such as Daesh. Serious questions abound as to whether Cyber Command can function as an independent entity, however.

Under the plans, the Cyber Command would eventually be split off from intelligence-focused National Security Agency. The Command was created in 2009 to address cyber espionage and other digital threats, under US Strategic Command — originally intended to involve only a few hundred staff, but as of July 2017 it is home to over 700 employees. Trump's plans could see it expand to several thousand — likewise, US military services' own cyber units have a goal of growing to 133 fully operational teams manned by as many as 6,200 in time.

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Full, concrete details remain elusive, and officials aren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter at present, but a decision and announcement is expected before the end of the summer.

The goal is to give Cyber Command greater 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. These responsibilities have been found to clash with military operations on occasion. In any event, the NSA is an intelligence-collection organization, while Cyber Command is intended to have direct operational capabilities.

Doing so would also place cyber defense and offense on a par with more traditional battlefields — land, air, sea and space. At the July Defense One forum, current Cyber Command head Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone said thousands of cyberattacks targeted US Army networks on a daily basis.

​It's unclear how fast the Cyber Command can and will break off on its own, with some officials believing the new command isn't battle-ready, given its reliance on the NSA's expertise, staff and equipment. Its proposed budget for 2018 is US$647 million, a 16 percent increase, in order to cover costs associated with becoming truly independent.

Army Lieutenant General William Mayville — currently Director of the military's Joint Staff — has been nominated as Cyber Command Chief.

Any new entity would take much time to duplicate the NSA's capabilities — the agency is home to 300 of the country's leading mathematicians and a giant supercomputer, for instance. Such expertise and aptitude could take years to effectively recreate, if at all.

© AFP 2023 / SAUL LOEBThe National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.
The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. - Sputnik International
The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.

However, the Defense Department has long agitated for a measured separation. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter sent a plan to then-President Barack Obama in 2016 to make Cyber Command an independent military headquarters, and for NSA chief Mike Rogers to be ousted. The Pentagon, he warned, was losing the war in the cyber domain, focusing on cyberthreats from enemy nations, rather than countering communication and propaganda campaigns launched by internet-savvy extremist groups.

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A July Rand Corporation report highlighted how misguided this focus could be. Allegations the Kremlin — or other governments — directed a series of cyberattacks on US targets were found to be potentially misplaced, given freelance hackers can penetrate US computer systems just as easily as foreign nations.

While these hackers may be based in other countries, they carry out attacks on their own initiative, with their own motives. The ability of their constituent governments to control these actions, the report said, was likely limited.

The report further recommended that the United States clearly state its views on the kinds of cyberattacks against the United States, US allies or US forces that it would consider unacceptable and likely to draw a response.

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