It's late in coming, but some good might finally come of the ongoing low-intensity campaign against the Islamic State. That conflict, which critics have charged as being too slow and too narrowly drawn to defeat the self-proclaimed caliphate, led military planners to pursue unconventional forms of conflict at a distance, including new forms of cyberwarfare. Now, U.S. officials have cleared the way for the White House to approve elevating the United States Cyber Command to the highest organizational level. President Obama can — and should — do exactly that.
To be sure, America is behind Russia, and perhaps others, in the race to operationalize permanent structures that recognize the increasing centrality of cyberwarfare and cybersecurity. The outsized role cyber plays in Russian military and foreign policy has only recently made waves in news and policy circles, but Moscow has orchestrated sophisticated, groundbreaking cyber campaigns for years, Beginning most notably with a wave of disabling attacks on Estonia in 2007 and a "hybrid" cyber and conventional war against Georgia in 2008, Russian operatives have honed their craft to the point where the U.S. must endure humiliating hacks against its political parties (and perhaps even its presidential candidates) today.
But the U.S. has a deep advantage in cyber, reaching back decades to the internet's creation on American soil and, even further, to the National Security Agency's founding in the early 1950s. That long lineage has supplied the U.S. with the infrastructure and institutional memory cyber commanders need to be effective in a dramatically changing world. But more is needed — the efficiency, flexibility and resources that will flow toward Cyber Command if President Obama approves the new plan.
There is more at stake than prestige or even independence. Elevating Cyber Command will, of necessity, clearly separate it from the NSA. Currently, Admiral Michael Rogers heads both Cyber Command and the NSA. Going forward, if Cyber Command is elevated, the NSA will no longer be headed by a military official at all, and there would be fewer concerns about the two agencies' missions being conflated and convoluted. As a result, the task of orchestrating offensive and defensive cyber capabilities would be cabined off from the NSA's task of managing surveillance capabilities — good news for those concerned those two missions could be conflated and convoluted. What's more, Cyber Command will not have to rely on NSA work to achieve its objectives — a plus for military commanders who have not always been satisfied with how the cyberwar against ISIS has been prosecuted.
Not just in a strategic sense is this the perfect time for a new and improved Cyber Command to receive the mandate to elevate its game. It's also true in a more nakedly political one. Amid the fallout from the administration's unsatisfactory first steps against ISIS, House Republicans probed reports that Central Command had "cooked the books" on military intelligence concerning the strength and danger of the jihadi regime, casting the U.S. effort as more successful than, in fact, it was. The investigating task force has now concluded in a brief report that Central Command officials did, indeed, alter intelligence reports that way. Although the changes may have influenced White House decision-making in an ancillary way, the ordeal is a significant institutional setback for the armed forces. During a time when Central Command has been tarnished over revelations that it cooked the books on military intelligence regarding the strength and danger of the jihadi regime and the success of U.S. efforts to combat it, there is strategic wisdom in the politics of handing Cyber Command the opportunity to shine.
Of course, a bureaucratic restructuring alone will not make up for America's belated struggle to destroy the latest iteration of global jihadi violence. Nor will it, by itself, make the U.S. safer from attack. But in this case, it will align America's military capabilities much more closely with the reality of threats many officials have been much too slow to take seriously.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER