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U.S. Commanders Must Embrace Cyber, Special Ops Chief Says

December 13, 2017

This report originally published at defense.gov.

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ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 13, 2017 — Cyber capabilities are integral to everything the U.S. Special Operations Command does worldwide, the commander said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s hot topic discussion here today.

Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III noted that his command embraced the cyber world early, which has driven many of the successes the command has achieved.

While the command obviously defends its cyber community, Thomas spoke about “offensive and exploitive cyber operations across the cyber continuum,” during his address.

Operations in the cyber realm are as new as the domain itself, the general said.

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“We special operations forces live — some would say thrive — in a world that is often out ahead of policy,” he said.

Many of Socom’s approaches since 9/11 were previously undefined in the policy realm. “Arguably the same can be said of cyber capability,” he said.

The idea of cyber as a warfighting domain is so new that many commanders consign it to a chief information officer, he said. This is “inconsistent with how we address every other domain,” the general said. “Commanders don’t outsource or pay so little attention to those.”

Attack, Exploit

The greatest space for advancement in the cyber worlds is in attack and exploit. From the U.S. perspective, he said, it is easier to conduct a kinetic strike on a target than it is to launch an offensive cyber operation.

This has gotten easier. In areas of declared hostilities, the timeline to launch an attack has compressed, he said. “But … it is still far too slow,” he said. “The limiting factor for cyber effectiveness continues to revolve around policy and process.”

Thomas quoted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who said: “One of the challenges of the United States is we are a nation of laws and our process to approve cyber operations is detailed and lengthy. Russia and China are not inhibited.”

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Officials need to formulate processes consistent with American values that still allow timely offensive cyber operations, the general said.

Thomas said he considers cyber to be both a challenge and an opportunity. Cyber is global and does not fit inside delineated geographic command boundaries, he said.

The U.S. can address the cyber domain. “We can do this,” the general said. “We have the structure a know-how to dominate in this domain, but it requires a focused effort and repetitions matter.”

From this, the military must continue building the team of cyber warriors. “We are moving in the right direction, but talent and task organization matter,” Thomas said.

Trust the Team

Another guiding principle must be to trust the team. “We must give our commanders the ability to employ cyber at the strategic, operational and tactical levels,” he said. “Tell them the end state and allow them to get after it.”

The general stressed the need to integrate effects. Cyber should be one part of all tools used from kinetic effects to diplomatic actions. “Effects are much more powerful when executed in a coordinated manner,” Thomas said.

Like land or sea or air warfare, there must be a campaign in cyber that allows the United States to exploit success, he said.

The United States must work with partners in the cyber domain. “We cannot succeed in an international domain without international and industry partners,” the general said.

History is littered with examples of commanders not understanding new technologies or dismissing those technologies to their peril, Thomas said. Cyber must not be dismissed. Commanders must understand it and look for new ways to employ it. “Our adversaries are already adapting, we need to keep pace,” he said.

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