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By Cam Sivesind
Wed | Dec 13, 2023 | 12:22 PM PST

The future of a dedicated U.S. Cyber Force remains uncertain after Congress stripped out a provision from the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have required the Pentagon to study its feasibility. This move, surprising to some, leaves the path to a potential new branch of the military shrouded in fog.

Why the study?

Proponents of a Cyber Force argue that the growing sophistication and scope of cyber threats warrant a specialized military branch dedicated to defending and attacking in the digital realm. They point to the success of existing specialized branches like the Space Force and claim a dedicated Cyber Force would improve coordination, training, and focus on cyber warfare.

"The idea of creating a separate 'Cyber Force' has been around for some time. The separate military services are designed to operate in specific domains," said Col. Cedric Leighton, CNN military analyst, USAF (Ret.), and Chairman, Cedric Leighton Associates. "The Army is responsible for land warfare, the Navy for sea warfare, and the Air Force for air warfare. But, in modern times, there's a lot of what I'll call 'domain overlap,' with elements of several domains showing up within each of the services. That can lead to redundancies, but also to unnecessary duplication and confusion as to proper roles and missions."

Opponents, however, raise concerns about cost, redundancy within existing structures like Cyber Command, and the potential for militarizing the internet. They argue that existing capabilities can be enhanced without the need for a new branch.

SecureWorld News first wrote about the proposed Cyber Force in August of this year when the U.S. Senate passed the $886 billion National Defense Authorization Act.

The study's fate

The NDAA, which sets the Pentagon's budget and priorities, originally included a provision requiring the Department of Defense (DoD) to commission an independent study on the viability of a Cyber Force. This study would have assessed the potential benefits, costs, and risks of establishing such a branch.

In the updated measure released in a report on December 6, it omits an amendment to the Senate's version of the legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have mandated the Defense Department tap the National Academy of Public Administration to examine the feasibility of creating a seventh, cyber-specific military service.

However, during negotiations between the House and Senate versions of the bill, the study provision was removed. This means the Pentagon won't be mandated to conduct the study, leaving the future of a Cyber Force hanging in the balance.

What does this mean?

The removal of the study provision doesn't necessarily signal the end of the Cyber Force concept. The NDAA still includes language encouraging the DoD to continue examining the "prospect of a new force generation model" for Cyber Command. This could involve exploring alternative structures and capabilities within the existing framework.

"While the study proposed by Sen. Gillibrand in an earlier version of the NDAA is but one possible step in establishing a separate military Cyber Service, it does indicate that a few more lawmakers are expressing interest in the possibility," Col. Leighton said. "The last U.S. military service branch to be created was the Space Force, which was established under the Trump Administration in 2019. Prior to that, the U.S. Air Force, which was created in 1947 as part of the post-World War II, was the 'newest' military service. Regardless of the fate of Sen. Gillibrand's study proposal, the DoD and others are already studying the possibility of establishing a separate 'Cyber Force.'"

"Whether or not to take that step will depend on several factors. One of them will be the answer to the question, 'Is our cyber mission being adequately fulfilled under the current military structure?' When the Space Force was created, it was, in part, a reaction to the failure of the Air Force to properly manage space and missile assets."

However, without the mandated independent study, the momentum for a dedicated Cyber Force appears to have stalled. The DoD is now under less pressure to formally evaluate the concept and present its findings to Congress.

The debate continues

Despite the setback, the debate over a Cyber Force is likely to continue. Proponents argue that the threat landscape demands a more focused approach, while opponents remain wary of duplication and militarization. Congress may revisit the idea in future legislation, and the DoD is expected to continue internal discussions on how best to address cyber challenges.

"Another question that needs to be answered is, 'Are other nations—both allies and adversaries—establishing separate Cyber services?'" Col. Leighton said. "The answer to that question at the moment is that at least four nations (China, Germany, Norway, and Singapore) have established Cyber services. It's probably just a matter of time before the U.S. establishes one, as well."