WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday announced plans to elevate U.S. Cyber Command to the status of a unified combatant command, underscoring the significance of the cyberspace-focused mission on national security.

In a statement released by the White House, Trump said the move “will strengthen our cyberspace operations and create more opportunities to improve our nation’s defense.”

“The elevation of United States Cyber Command demonstrates our increased resolve against cyberspace threats and will help reassure our allies and partners and deter our adversaries.,” Trump said. “Elevation will also ensure that critical cyberspace operations are adequately funded.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will also review whether to separate the command from the National Security Agency.

The elevation of Cyber Command has been expected for months, and has been discussed for much of the unit’s life. Created in 2009, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were both reportedly in favor of splitting the two organizations.

CYBERCOM was placed within the NSA in order to streamline standing up the group, but many involved — including Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of both the NSA and CYBERCOM — acknowledge the situation has evolved since then.

However, changes will not take place for a while longer. Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, said no change to CYBERCOM will actually occur until the president has nominated and the Senate has confirmed a new head for the combatant command.

Rapuano was careful not to tell reporters who that individual could be. It is possible that could involve a renomination for Rogers, who has held the dual-hat role since 2014, but a fresh face is perhaps more likely. 

Language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act calls for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense to certify that the capabilities of CYBERCOM and the NSA won’t be degraded if they split off.

The Pentagon is still in the process of assessing that, and there is no time frame for when such a decision could be made, Rapuano said. But his words and tone seemed to acknowledged that a split was going to happen at some point in the future.

In a statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., praised the move, but said more needs to be done to confront the cybersecurity threat. In 2016, McCain had pledged to block any such effort, saying the Obama administration had not formally consulted Congress. 

“We must develop a clear policy and strategy for deterring and responding to cyberthreats,” he said. “We must also develop an integrated, whole-of-government approach to protect and defend the United States from cyberattacks.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, said in a statement: “Cyberattacks from countries like China, Russia and North Korea are a real threat to our national security. Elevating U.S. Cyber Command to a full combatant command will help us build the force necessary to defend ourselves from these types of attacks.”

But Rapuano insisted the move was not because of any specific action from a foreign competitor. Rather, it was part of a broader, long-term look at what makes sense for the department’s cyber efforts going forward. 

The elevation is a ”welcome and necessary [move] that ensures the nation is best positioned to address the increasing threats in cyberspace,” Rapuano told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

The elevation consolidates the authorities in order to direct synchronization of resources, training and operational planning, Rapuano said, adding the change will be particularly relevant for “unique, time-sensitive operations.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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