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US military Cyber Command won't go operational as planned

Not even quite sure what 'operational' means yet

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The US military's central Cyber Command will not become operational as had been planned tomorrow, according to Pentagon spokesmen. Issues responsible for the delay include difficulties finding suitably qualified staff among America's uniformed legions, and also the fact that it isn't even clear what "operational" means for a cyberforce.

The delays are reported by Stars & Stripes.

“I don’t know that the 1 October deadline is holding strong and fast,” military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Rene White told the military paper, asked if Cyber Command would indeed be operational as US defence secretary Robert Gates had specified it should be.

Asked what "fully operational" would actually mean for the cyber command, the colonel replied: “That’s a good question."

Cyber Command, which is bossed by the head of America's feared National Security Agency (NSA) and has its headquarters at the same complex (Fort Meade in Maryland) was created to bring the nascent cyberwar forces of the separate American armed services together. These include the US 24th Air Force, Fleet Cyber Command, Army Forces Cyber Command and Marine Forces Cyber Command.

The US air force alone nowadays considers that it has 30,000 personnel assigned to "cyber" duties, though most of these are simply previously existing communications and electronics troops whose jobs are now deemed to be cyber ones. Only a few thousand are in the specialist 24th Air Force cyber formations.

Cyber Command HQ itself at Fort Meade is expected to have around 1000 staff eventually, mostly uniformed service people as opposed to the largely civilian-staffed NSA (though the NSA is formally speaking a "combat support agency of the Department of Defense"). Finding suitable military people to man up the Cyber Command is apparently a serious issue. Briefing politicians last week, NSA/Cyber Command chief General Keith Alexander said: “If you were to ask me, what is the biggest challenge that we currently face? It’s generating the people that we need to do this mission."

Some US officers considering this problem have said that military culture doesn't value technical skills and its many other requirements - that personnel should be physically fit, able to shoot straight, will be expected to command others if they are to have decent status and pay etc etc - mean that Cyber Command can never be properly manned from the existing services. A pair of cyber colonels recently argued for the creation of a fifth* service, the Cyber service, which would be deliberately set up to appeal more to tech geeks, though in fact this might already be said to exist in the form of the NSA.

Another factor in the Cyber Command delays is the issue of what its job is. General Alexander's confirmation as boss was held up for some time by puzzled politicians trying to get more detail on this, and indeed judging by Colonel White's comments even the Pentagon remains unsure. Of course the command has a formal mission statement - inscribed on its crest in the form of an MD5 hash, though one needs to leave out a crucial hyphen to get the right value - but this doesn't seem to have resolved the matter.

Much debate has revolved around the issue of whether the Command will mount network attacks in other countries, and if so what the legal mechanisms for ordering it to do so might be. There's no doubt that it will be capable of making such attacks, however: the 24th AF alone contains an entire unit, the 67th Network Warfare Wing, dedicated to nothing else. Furthermore the left-field military research agency, DARPA, is known to be working on a digital "cyber range" in which to test the fearful network artillery and code missiles of tomorrow.

But for now, anyway, it appears that the Cyber Command will remain only at "initial operational capability" while it gets itself sorted out. Read the Stars & Stripes piece here. ®

*The US Marines are usually counted as a separate, fourth service.

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