Is Cyber Command ready to stand on its own?

Keith Alexander, DOD photo

Gen. Keith Alexander's planned retirement would be an obvious time to separate leadership of the National Security Agency from that of U.S. Cyber Command, but the changes required are anything but simple.

Debate about the relationship between the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command has ratcheted up in the wake of damaging leaks about NSA surveillance activities, but no decision on whether to split the two entities is likely before dual-hatted Gen. Keith Alexander steps down in spring 2014.

The embattled Alexander is tasked with balancing Title 10 intelligence authorities at NSA and Title 50 operational authorities at CyberCom. With CyberCom a subordinate command to U.S. Strategic Command, Alexander also is the only four-star general who reports to another four-star, one of the numerous reasons the split remains on the table -- and perhaps likely, depending on who is asked.

A split would mean dividing those authorities, as well as a number of other policies, issues and personnel that surround the twin agencies that have been cooperating since CyberCom was established in 2010.

"The idea has been around for long time; it's been a point of discussion since before CyberCom even stood up," said Jim Lewis, senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Some people wondered if it was inevitable, if CyberCom reached the point where they're working on their own without the NSA there. The real issue is CyberCom's capabilities. Are they ready to do things on their own?"

But before that officially is determined, decisions likely will be made at the very top -- specifically, the leadership of two separate agencies post-Alexander, who announced his retirement in October.

There is, however, debate about who would lead -- not just the individual, but their credentials. Would NSA gain a civilian director? Would a three-star take over at subordinate-command CyberCom, or will it be elevated to a combatant command headed up by a four-star general -- a change that would require legislation?

By comparison, the Defense Intelligence Agency is led by three-star Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, while the Director of National Intelligence is civilian James Clapper and the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the highest-ranking military intelligence official at the Pentagon, is civilian Michael Vickers. The Joint Special Operations Command is led by three-star Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, subordinate to the Special Operations Command led by four-star Adm. William McRaven.

Both JSOC and SOCOM serve as potential models for CyberCom, where certain elevated authorities enjoyed by the former two commands could be particularly valuable in the fast-moving cyber landscape.

"I think what makes SOCOM unique, and our ability to meet warfighter needs, is our [Special Operations Forces equipment] dollars and our acquisition authorities," said John Wilcox, SOCOM CIO and director of communications systems. "It's no secret that that allows us to turn inside the normal procurement cycle. Given technology and the rapid evolution, that might be something CyberCom ought to have."

Aside from potentially changing particular authorities, dividing the leadership would also mean splitting responsibilities and possibly shifting military priorities.

"Right now you don't have a disagreement about whether to prioritize intelligence-gathering or military warfighting. You don't have that because it's all happening in the head of the same person," said Jason Healey, director of the Atlantic Council's Cyber Statecraft Initiative. "That's a useful debate -- do you want to keep collecting, or do you want to win? In [signals intelligence], you want to keep listening. Warfighters will say at some point you have to stop listening and start fighting things out. Right now you don't have that debate."

Under Alexander, some responsibilities are integrated, while others remain separate under federal requirements. Sorting out those responsibilities could prove to be a tough task, as officials will have to be careful to avoid overlap and duplication of missions. Lewis noted that doing so could require strengthened oversight.

"It's easy now because the same guy is directing the integrated responsibilities," Lewis said. "To conduct a cyber attack you have to look at the opponent's network. NSA is good at that, and then they can hand [military action] off to CyberCom. If they split, how will that work when it's not integrated?"

Flynn declined to speculate on what might happen, but emphasized the critically close relationship between intelligence and cyber.

"What does intelligence do? Intelligence enables things," Flynn said. "Intelligence enables decisions, it enables operations, it enables ideas, it enables new technologies we have. So intelligence definitely enables cyber. There's a really, really close lash-up between intelligence and cyber. And operations ... if you want to extend that."

As for the people carrying out those operations -- and the two agencies' missions across the board -- a split could get messy, multiple sources said, and the potential for mess could determine when, how and if the separation happens.

"The staff is intertwined; CyberCom is a separate entity, but the relationship with NSA is pretty close," Lewis said. "Of course service members are in both organizations and civilians are in both organizations. But it's still not an obstacle in separating them with the caveat that if you take the NSA people out of CyberCom, what's left? Until we can answer that question, they ought to go slowly."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.