President Trump just increased the importance of military operations in cyberspace.
On Friday, Trump issued a statement announcing that he was officially elevating US Cyber Command to a full-fledged combatant command, which members of Congress voted in favor of last December. This move now makes it one of the nation’s top military organizations, underscoring just how important cyberwarfare is to the United States.
The promotion will allow CyberCom to use cyberspace for military purposes without having to get permission from the larger military organization it once belonged to, which is also responsible for nuclear weapons and outer space. That made operations move more slowly, disadvantaging the US in a world where cyber maneuvers can be completed in seconds — or even faster.
This change shows that the Trump administration is gearing up to be better prepared for a battlefield that relies a lot on cyberspace. Think of it this way: The video feed a drone pilot sees, for example, comes from equipment that is reliant on the internet. That makes it vulnerable to attack.
But America’s enemies are also online, of course, so having a military command that tries to make it harder for them to use the internet is also valuable for the US. For example, the Obama administration relied on cyberweapons to sabotage some of North Korea’s missiles, which use cyberspace to track and hit a target.
Still, challenges remain for this move, including how to best deconflict military and spying operations in cyberspace. The administration will have to consider those as defense officials implement the new presidential directive.
The difference between cyberwarfare and cyberespionage
Part of the reason for this move is to firmly distinguish between the work of CyberCom and the National Security Agency.
That’s important because the nature of what each organization does is different. As Chris Inglis, deputy director of the NSA from 2006 to 2014, told me, cyberwarriors want an adversary to know they are taking actions against it, while cyberspies want to quietly infiltrate an enemy’s online presence.
Here’s why: A cyber military operation lets the adversary know you’re in the network. In fact, you want them to know because they need to feel a severe cost is being put on them. But if you’re trying to spy on a bad guy, you want to be stealthy. Attacking an enemy in cyberspace, though, effectively “burns” the computer and network you’re using to conduct the attack because the enemy can figure out which computer you are attacking from. That makes it a lot less useful to you now, explained Jason Healey, a cyber expert at Columbia University.
Promoting a cyber command for military operations is also helpful because it allows it to more easily coordinate with other US military leaders. Troops fighting in Afghanistan, for example, may request help from cyberwarriors for a particular mission. That’s harder when the guy at the computer has to ask for permission from someone much higher up.
But right now, both of the warfighting and spying operations are led by one person, Adm. Michael Rogers, who is “dual-hatted” as the NSA director and CyberCom commander. Experts believe that role will soon be split into two. “I think it’s inevitable,” Inglis said.
So while this might seem like a run-of-the-mill bureaucratic change, it’s not. If anything, it emphasizes just how serious cyber operations have become to America.