WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department formally raised the status of a critical, but clandestine cyber force, a move that underlines the military’s evolving role in the digital domain.

U.S. Cyber Command boss Gen. Paul Nakasone on Dec. 19 officiated a ceremony establishing the Cyber National Mission Force, or CNMF, as a subordinate unified command.

The move cements the force as a permanent entity, with CYBERCOM serving as its parent. The upgrade also reflects the success of the CNMF, activated in 2014, in its roles as an election defender, foreign hacker hunter and rapid responder, according to Maj. Gen. William Hartman, its commander.

“What this designation is really about is the maturity of the Cyber National Mission Force as a forward-looking organization to defend the nation,” Hartman said in a statement Monday. “It’s about building a sustained readiness model that enables us to stay in a fight.”

CNMF comprises 39 joint cyber teams organized in six task forces, with more than 2,000 military members, intelligence community officials and civilians. The Pentagon for fiscal 2023 sought $11.2 billion for cyber efforts including plans to harden networks, insulate critical infrastructure and expand forces under CYBERCOM’s authority.

The force has been integral to the command’s work to secure U.S. elections, including the midterms this year, and its efforts to reinforce Ukrainian networks ahead of and during Russia’s invasion of the neighboring country that began in February.

“This command is so special because they’ve always been on the cutting edge in terms of the operations we’ve conducted,” Nakasone, who previously served as a CNMF commander, said in a statement. “This is the command within U.S. Cyber Command that has always taken that first step forward.”

The CNMF is, arguably, best known for its hunt-forward operations. The endeavors — considered defensive and cooperative — involve sending a team at the invitation of a foreign government to root out malicious actors, identify network vulnerabilities and gain a better understanding of hackers’ tools.

The force has conducted nearly 40 hunt-forward operations since hitting full-operational capacity in 2018, according to CYBERCOM. The U.S. dispatched a group of cyber experts to Ukraine at the end of 2021, amid rising international tension. Specialists were previously sent to Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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