Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

Getting to the Ground Truth on the Elevation of U.S. Cyber Command

| Aug. 31, 2017


One of my biggest frustrations during my time in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s cyber policy office was the way elevating U.S. Cyber Command became overhyped. Cyber Command was created as a subordinate command within the military’s premier nuclear deterrence command, U.S. Strategic Command. There were good historical reasons for this, but my analysis convinced me there was nothing Cyber Command could undertake if it became a unified command that it could not already do as a subordinate command. Yet as cyber operations became more prominent, the chorus grew to elevate it to its own, independent command. While I never found reason to oppose such a move, I did not think the benefits were all that remarkable. The more consequential question would be when and how to separate the leadership of Cyber Command from the National Security Agency.

Ultimately, Obama administration officials deferred elevating Cyber Command because they viewed it as linked to this related issue of separating the command from the NSA — because they did not undertake the latter, they passed on the former.

On Friday, Aug. 18, President Donald Trump took a different approach. He elevated U.S. Cyber Command to the status of a “full unified command” within the U.S. military but deferred the decision to appoint a new Cyber Command commander independent of the NSA director. I spoke with Bobby Chesney and Susan Hennessey before the announcement about what might be in store, and Kate Charlet had a great write-up in War on the Rocks a few days later.  In this piece, I’d like to assess the validity of various arguments in favor of elevating Cyber Command to this “unified command” status.

My bottom line: While I support the administration’s decision to elevate Cyber Command, its stated reasons for doing so are overdrawn. The true benefits are long-term and bureaucratic. Elevating Cyber Command is only one step on the road to turning it into something else: an institution less intertwined with the intelligence community and better integrated with the other elements of the military. Before turning to what I see as the real benefits, let’s review the administration’s arguments for why elevation matters.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sulmeyer, Michael.“Getting to the Ground Truth on the Elevation of U.S. Cyber Command.” War on the Rocks, August 31, 2017.