WASHINGTON — U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the oldest and the largest of the Pentagon’s unified combatant commands, asked Congress for an additional $274 million to fund offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, as officials seek to fend off hackers and gird for potential conflict with China.
“Offensive cyber access and effects” projects, at $184 million, and “cybersecurity and network defenses,” at $90 million, are included in the command’s hefty $3.5 billion unfunded priorities list, a copy of which Defense News reviewed.
The former supports “capabilities to access and effect cyberspace operations,” it said. The latter would fund INDOPACOM attempts to harden networks and quickly identify intruders.
Combatant commands and military leaders annually send unfunded priorities lists, also called “wish lists,” to lawmakers, each offering different levels of detail, as required by law. They allow defense officials to note for Congress items that did not make it into the latest budget request from the White House but that would be useful should money be available.
INDOPACOM’s ask comes as the U.S. looks to counter an increasingly influential and assertive China in both real and virtual worlds. The Biden administration’s cybersecurity strategy, published this month, identifies Beijing as the “broadest, most active and most persistent threat to both government and private sector networks” and China as the “only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do so.”
The command’s wish list, which also includes millions for missile warning and tracking, signals intelligence upgrades, foreign influence campaigns and more, highlights “exactly the kinds of capabilities that will make People’s Liberation Army planners and political leaders in Beijing think twice” about acting belligerently, according to Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank.
“When you just quickly look at the list: Guam defense system, cybersecurity, network defenses, missile warning and tracking, space sensors, undersea targeting, resilient warfighting architecture, joint fires networks, maritime strike capabilities, and the list goes on and on,” he told C4ISRNET. “These aren’t exactly new golf courses in Hawaii, right? This is not a bigger house for the general.”
Hackers backed by China siphon intellectual property to boost technological development and meddle in foreign affairs by peddling disinformation, among other digital misbehavior. Chinese-sponsored cyberattacks breached a Navy contractor’s computers, jeopardizing sensitive information tied to secret work on an anti-ship missile, Defense News reported in 2018.
The Defense Department’s desired cyber spending has steadily increased in recent years. The department this month requested $13.5 billion, a 20.5% increase compared to the Biden administration’s previous ask of $11.2 billion. That same pitch is up from $10.4 billion in FY22, $9.8 billion in FY21 and $9.6 billion in FY20.
Trustworthy networks underpin much of what the military does, making cybersecurity paramount. And as the U.S. prepares to fight larger-scale wars with tech-savvy opponents, the pipes through which information flow need to be thickly insulated, according to defense officials and analysts.
“The kill chain is essentially what? It’s detect, decide, deliver,” said Bowman, a former Black Hawk pilot. “The side that can go through that kill chain, detect, decide, deliver, the fastest is the side that’s going to win the engagement and maybe win the conflict. So what strings all that together? Well, that’s strung together by networks, command and control, artificial intelligence, with a cyber protection or cyber activity layered over all of it.”
Defense News reporter Bryant Harris contributed to this article.
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.