Why the United States Needs an Independent Cyber Force
Cyber is now the oxygen upon which the U.S. military depends for almost literally every element of its vast warfighting capabilities. No military service today can function without reliable, resilient cyber capabilities for everything from command and control, to intelligence analysis, to the routine functioning of every weapon system from tanks and ships to aircraft and satellites. Take away that oxygen, disrupt its availability, or sow mistrust in its integrity, and the whole global system of U.S. military power may catastrophically malfunction, if not collapse. What is more, almost every element of government, business, and civil society today also depends on cyberspace to enable every imaginable function. Disrupt cyberspace, and our entire society risks a plunge into chaos.
Yet despite this existential reliance by both American society and the U.S. military, the nation’s cyber defense, deterrence, and offense capabilities today are fragmented and disjointed. While the Department of Defense cannot and should not take ownership of every aspect of this ubiquitous challenge that spans the public and private sector alike, it must bring new focus, capacity, and transformative change to effectively address the military dimensions of this challenge. To do so, it needs to establish the U.S. Cyber Force as a new military service.
Two recent reports highlight the alarming perils facing the nation from the cyber domain. In March 2020, the Congressionally mandated Cyber Solarium Commission framed its final report by arguing “the status quo is not getting the job done. The status quo is inviting attacks on Americans every second of the day. The status quo is a slow surrender of American power and responsibility.” And this past March, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence concluded that “America is not prepared to defend or compete” in the era of artificial intelligence, and that the country “will not be able to defend against AI-enabled threats without ubiquitous AI capabilities and new warfighting paradigms.” Taken together, these two bipartisan efforts sound urgent alarm bells about the ability of the United States to defend itself against the burgeoning dangers in the virtual world, which threaten to undermine traditional U.S. deterrence and military dominance.
The chilling findings and wide-ranging recommendations of these two commissions — over 150 in total — provide many arguments that buttress the case for an independent U.S. Cyber Force within the Department of Defense. They both highlight the need to fundamentally rethink how wars will be fought in this century, and flag the U.S. military’s continued reliance on legacy platforms and systems that are not AI-capable and were not designed for warfare in a digital world. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, for example, observes that “a new warfighting paradigm is emerging,” and pointedly states that the Department of Defense “should not be a witness to the AI revolution in military affairs, but should deliver it with leadership from the top, new operating concepts, relentless experimentation, and a system that rewards agility and risk.”
As currently structured, the Pentagon simply cannot meet this transformative challenge. Like the other unified combatant commands, U.S. Cyber Command and its Cyber Mission Force draw their personnel solely from the existing military services, each of which has its own cyber missions and responsibilities. The services should retain many of those personnel, since they will need to continue protecting their own cyber networks and providing tactical cyber support to their units on the battlefield. But the cyber warfare domain is entirely different from the physical domains of air, land, sea, and space that shape the focus and warfighting priorities of the services. Too often, the services treat cyber as an enabler of more conventional military operations in their respective domains, rather than an entirely new and unique domain of warfare. The nation needs more capacity and more finely honed skills in the cyber domain than the traditional services can contribute.
In many ways, this dynamic parallels the struggle for an independent U.S. Air Force in the first half of the 20th century. In that era, the Army and Navy used newly invented airplanes to support their units and ships, rather than exploring how airpower might be used as a separate, even decisive, instrument of war. They successfully blocked attempts to create a separate Air Force until 1947, after the monumental contributions of American airpower to winning World War II were finally recognized. This pattern is largely repeating itself today, as the services continue to treat cyber principally as a means of advancing their legacy warfighting capabilities rather than think imaginatively about the necessity for a new paradigm that focuses on the revolutionary impacts of the cyber domain on warfare. Yet at a broader level, when no service is specifically charged with the responsibility for thinking solely about fighting in the cyber domain, the nation’s ability to leverage its full cyber warfare potential will forever remain fragmented and inevitably incomplete.
A separate U.S. Cyber Force would deeply transform the Department of Defense and prepare it more effectively for the challenges of future warfare. The nascent state of strategic thinking about cyber conflict today shares many similarities with the early days of the nuclear age, when concepts of nuclear deterrence and warfighting were just forming. Establishing a new Cyber Force would speed that process by catalyzing new and truly innovative thinking, without the constraints of other service cultures, doctrine, legacy programs, and bureaucratic preferences. Consolidating and focusing the Pentagon’s expertise, energy, and budgetary power in a separate cyber service would promote new thinking on cyber warfare, cyber deterrence, and cyber defense. It would accelerate the development of AI and a range of other cyber-specific tools and doctrines for deterrence and warfighting in ways that the traditional armed services simply cannot replicate. And it would create a distinct cyberspace culture inside the U.S. military that can be both a lodestar and incubator of cyber talent in the force, distinct from the strong service cultures associated with war on land, in the air, and at sea.
There would also be substantial organizational and bureaucratic advantages to establishing a separate cyber service. Its new service chief would sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and ensure that the latest cyber warfare thinking and capabilities are fully considered in every major military operation. It would also ensure that U.S. military discussions on everything from warfighting concepts to force structure, from budgets to force posture, are informed by a full consideration of their implications for cyber warfare. And it would be well-positioned to partner with other key actors in the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Council, and other relevant agencies to help bring together public and private sector expertise on a regular basis.
Additionally, a separate U.S. Cyber Force would have Title 10 authorities to organize, train, and equip cyber warriors, rather than having to draw them from each of the services as is the case today. Cyber warriors should be assessed, recruited, and trained to very different standards than the other services, which would enable the Cyber Force to draw on a far broader range of unconventional talent among the U.S. population. It could attract many technically skilled civilians who lack the ability or interest to make it through Marine Corps boot camp or Army basic training — including those with blue hair. Establishing Cyber Force Reserve units would enable cyber experts from the private sector to serve part-time, providing the military with cutting-edge technical expertise that it could not otherwise access. And the new service might also help develop new cyber auxiliaries that bring together vetted civilian cyber experts, particularly from cyber security and technology firms, to supplement uniformed cyber warriors in certain tasks.
The Cyber Force could draw many lessons from the recent establishment of the Space Force in its creative approach to organizational structure and service culture. It too would be designed from the very beginning as a small and agile force that provides unique capabilities to the unified combatant commands. Like the Space Force, the new Cyber Force would also be built from the ground up as a digital service, making a clean break from how the traditional services do everything from acquisition to operational tasks. The Cyber Force should also be nested initially within the Department of the Air Force for logistical support, to minimize overhead startup costs and leverage back office capabilities from an existing department. While it may ultimately spin off into a department of its own, starting it in the same department as the Space Force would enable it to leverage innovative ideas for its organization and development.
The argument for yet another separate military service is sure to face headwinds. In a time of flat or declining Pentagon budgets, the notion that the department should create an entirely new service when interservice competition for resources is already fierce may seem an unaffordable luxury. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff is already fairly large, with two new members having joined in recent years. But the transformative value of a Cyber Force on the military’s entire concept of warfare, and on the debates that unfold in the Tank, will have outsize effects that ripple across all of the services in ways that will dramatically shift how the United States fights its future wars. A Cyber Force can be the driving catalyst that finally forces the U.S. military to break away from what the AI commission called “an Industrial Age mentality in which great-power conflict is seen as a contest of massed forces and monolithic platforms and systems.” The value of transforming the Pentagon toward the wars of the future far outweighs the costs of standing up a new service.
We have called for an independent U.S. Cyber Force before, but the ever-increasing reliance on the cyber domain and the stunning nature of recent cyber attacks now make this even more urgent. The cyber domain is unprecedented in the history of warfare, since it does not require physical weaponry or geographic proximity to effectively attack and disrupt today’s U.S. military (and American society more broadly). The existing services are far too invested in preparing for warfare in their respective domains to think creatively and independently about ways to address this entirely new type of threat. Creating a new U.S. Cyber Force would help ensure that the vital oxygen upon which the U.S. military depends is always available in every future military operation.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.
Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Hunter Medley)