WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump announced his decision to elevate U.S. Cyber Command to full combatant command status, it marked a final acknowledgement that cyber is a vital component of American war fighting.

But could it also set off alarm bells for other nations that the U.S. is preparing to use offensive cyber operations in a new way?

That was a question posted to two top cyber officials from the Pentagon during the annual Federal Times CyberCon Tuesday. And their message to those who might share those concerns was simple: don’t worry.

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“It’s a nuanced change, the elevation. There has been a United States Cyber Command for a number of years now, there will continue to be [in the future], and I don’t see it as escalatory at all,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Todd Stratton, director of the AFCYBER Forward group.

“There’s a lot going on out there in the domain and the establishment of the sub-unified command of CYBERCOM in 2010 didn’t change any of that, and I don’t think there are any red lines that will be crossed there,” he added.

His fellow panelist — Air Force Brig. Gen. Timothy Haugh, director of intelligence at CYBERCOM — concurred, adding that the elevation for CYBERCOM needs to be viewed through the group’s priority list.

The top priority remains securing the DoD’s information networks, or as he put it: “From our perspective, the bulk of our force is still engaged in making sure we have assured communications, defended networks, trust in our data and the ability to operate in all domains.”

The second priority is to protect the nation from cyberattacks. And the third element is to give defense leaders opportunities where “we should just be presenting increasing numbers of options for them in that domain.”

“So I wouldn’t view that as any escalation,” Haugh said. “I view that as just really practical in terms of the situation we face today.”

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.

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