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Does cyber corps merit its own service branch?

April 9, 2015 (Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

This story was originally published on April 10, 2015

Defense Secretary Ash Carter raised eyebrows during his recent visit to the U.S. Cyber Command headquarters in Maryland when he suggested that the cyber corps may ultimately become its own service branch.

"There may come a time when that makes sense," Carter said in response to a question March 13. "And I think you have to look at this as the first step in a journey that may, over time, lead to the decision to break out Cyber the way that you said the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force, the way Special Operations Command was created ... with a somewhat separate thing, although that still has service parts to it."

Founded in 2009, U.S. Cyber Command remains in a developmental phase as the military services work to meet the force's first major milestone: Standing up an operational fleet of 133 teams of active-duty cyber experts by the end of 2016.

Carter's comments underscore the uncertainty surrounding Cyber Command's future. It may soon become its own combatant command, putting it at the highest rung on the chain of command, on par with U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Strategic Command, which manages nuclear capabilities.

That possibility raises a slew of follow-on questions, expert say.

"The second question is 'What would the service look like?' " said Richard Bejtlich, a former Air Force intelligence officer who is now a cybersecurity expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

"Would it look like the Air Force? Or would it be more like the Coast Guard? Would it be a [Defense Department] service or a [Department of Homeland Security] service? Would the cyber corps have some sort of volunteer or civilian element?"

The cyber corps relationship with civilians may be unique. In the event of a large-scale crisis, military-trained cyber warriors may need to have a uniquely direct working relationship with state and local law enforcement and government officials. Defense officials also disagree over the proper role for the reserve components in the cyber force.

Carter has suggested that major reform of the military personnel system may be needed to recruit and retain a qualified cyber force, such as allowing some highly skilled recruits to enter service at higher ranks or changing some recruiting standards that might be screening out young people with high-tech skills.

A cyber corps might differ from the traditional military services in many ways.

"The whole officer-enlisted stuff doesn't really work well in cyber," Bejtlich said. "Some of the best people I've known in cyber were enlisted people, and the fact that they don't have a college degree made no difference whatsoever."

The idea of creating a separate cyber corps is attractive in some ways, but the real-world process would create an epic struggle among bureaucracies. For the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, a new service branch would mean surrendering billions of annual budget dollars and thousands of jobs.

"The cyber mission has pretty much infiltrated everyone's budget process by now," said Trey Herr, a cyber warfare expert at George Washington University. "The existing services are going to fight tooth and nail to retain some or all of those mission sets."

Yet budget concerns cut both ways. A new service branch is a real possibility, said Eric Bassel, a former special operations soldier who is now director of the SANS Institute, a private company that specializes in cybersecurity training.

"Right now, cyber is getting funded by every service, there is probably all kinds of duplication," Bassel said. "I could see a scenario in the future when we are looking at budget cuts and we say let's scratch this [current organization] and eliminate the duplication."

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