WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Tuesday ordered the creation of a military command to oversee cyberspace in order to better defend military computer networks as well as pool capabilities for attacking the networks of other countries.
For now, the U.S. Cyber Command will remain a part of the military's Strategic Command, which also oversees the nation's nuclear arsenal. But experts said the move is likely to be a precursor to setting up an independent command.
In a memo signed Tuesday, Gates said the command would help the Defense Department secure "freedom of action in cyberspace."
The U.S.' "increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national security," Gates wrote.
Pentagon officials emphasized the Department of Homeland Security would retain the lead role in defending government computers, while the new command would focus on the Defense Department's networks.
The new command, to be based at Ft. Meade, Md., will be run by the head of the National Security Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander. In a memo, Gates recommended Alexander be promoted as part of the creation of the command.
Although Pentagon officials emphasized the command's defensive orientation, experts said the reorganization would improve coordination of both offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.
"For a long time, the Pentagon has acknowledged cyber is a war-fighting domain," said James Andrew Lewis, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This will bring the offensive and defensive sides of the house together."
John Wheeler, a former special assistant to the Air Force secretary who worked on computer network issues, said the new command was a signal that the Obama administration was taking the issue seriously.
"The good news is we are bringing the issues into the public domain," Wheeler said.
But Wheeler said the Pentagon was embroiled in a turf battle between intelligence officers and military commanders over who should control the effort.
The intelligence community is dominating the new Cyber Command, but Wheeler said it eventually should be led by someone with a military operations background
"You need war-fighter DNA to do this," Wheeler said. "We will get this right when we have had our first combat in cyberspace."
The Defense Department has avoided emphasizing the new command's offensive mission out of concern that the Pentagon will be seen as militarizing cyberspace.
"There is the fear the Department of Defense will take over the Internet," Lewis said. "They don't want this to be misinterpreted."
Some also fear that foreign governments, convinced the U.S. is conducting offensive operations in cyberspace, could step up their own network attacks, or resist international pressure to halt them.
The command will begin its initial operation in October, and is scheduled to begin full operations a year later.