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Cyber Command fielding 13 “offensive” cyber deterrence units

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, head of United States Cyber Command, dropped several interesting nuggets about the military’s cyber forces during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today. First off, the command is fielding 13 offensive cyber teams that are tasked with deterring destructive cyber attacks against the United States. While Alexander said these are offensive ...

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Army Gen. Keith Alexander, head of United States Cyber Command, dropped several interesting nuggets about the military’s cyber forces during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today.

First off, the command is fielding 13 offensive cyber teams that are tasked with deterring destructive cyber attacks against the United States. While Alexander said these are offensive teams, he insisted their role is defensive: "Let me be clear, this defend-the-nation team is not a defensive team, this is an offensive team that the Department of Defense would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace."

If you have trouble making sense of that, you’re not alone. After the hearing, Alexander compared the teams to missile defenses. (Click here to read some of the Defense Science Board’s recent suggestions for deterring destructive cyber attacks with some pretty offensive weaponry.)

"We are already developing the teams that we need, the tactics, techniques, and procedures and the doctrine for how these teams would be employed, with a focus on defending the nation in cyberspace," said Alexander in his opening statement.

In addition, the command is developing 27 teams that will provide assistance in planning offensive cyber operations to the regional combatant commands — the military organizations around the globe that are tasked with actually fighting wars.

Finally, the command is organizing a number of teams, Alexander didn’t say how many, aimed at defending the military’s networks against cyber attacks.

"Those three sets of teams are the core construct for what we’re working with the services to develop our cyber cadre," said Alexander. "The key here is training our folks to the highest standard possible."

One third of these teams will be stood up by September 2013, the second third in late 2014, and the final third will be in place a year after that, he told lawmakers. 

The Army four-star also said in his written statement that in addition to 917 troops and civilians at Cyber Command headquarters in Maryland (with a budget for FY13 of $191 million), there are more than 11,000 people from all four armed services working cyber issues for the command. (Click here for Killer Apps’ recent look at the total expected number of cyber troops in the U.S. military. The numbers we saw were a lot higher than 11,000.)

Alexander’s testimony comes as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is looking at whether or not to elevate Cyber Command to a full-unified command. Cyber Command currently reports to U.S. Strategic Command.

Later in the hearing Alexander said he agreed with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) statement that a major cyber attack that devastated the U.S. power grid would do "as much or more damage" as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On the other end of the spectrum, Alexander said that the denial of service attacks like the ones suffered by major U.S. banks last fall are best dealt with by Internet Service Providers, not the government. He went on to say that in addition to the Obama administration’s recent cyber security executive order, legislation is needed to allow private businesses to share information about cyber attacks they are suffering in real time with the U.S. government.

Also today, the U.S. Intelligence Community released its annual World Wide Threat Assessment, featuring cyber at the top of the list, ahead of terrorism. However, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers today when unveiling the assessment that the risk of major destructive cyber attacks against the U.S. by a major cyber player like Russia or China "is remote." Remember, Russia and China are the two powers most frequently cited as being able to execute a catastrophic destructive attack against the U.S. Still, many would point out these countries have little interest in doing so.

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