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Who Commands In Cyberspace As New HQ Expands?

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


(U.S. Air Force photo by Jerry Saslav)

Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel

TYSON’S CORNER: “Unity of command” is a classic principle of war. As the US military struggles to improve cybersecurity against relentless Russian, Chinese, and other attacks, however, it’s finding the complex interconnectedness of computer networks complicate the chain of command. If the tech guys urgently need to shut a system down — say, because it’s infected with a virus and they want to stop it spreading — but the combat commanders need it to run their operations, who prevails?

“Frankly, it’s a question I have myself,” said Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, the new vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, when I raised the issue at an AFCEA conference this morning. My hypothetical scenario wasn’t actually complex enough, she went on, because in some critical cases, ripple effects mean there are at least three parties involved.

For example, to detect, track, and target an incoming ICBM, ballistic missile defense depends on a constant feed of intelligence from satellites, ships, and ground-based radars. None of these sensors belong to the Ground-Based Interceptor units that are supposed to shoot the ICBMs down. If DISA’s cyberwarriors decide they need to, say, update a vital piece of software, how do they make sure the potential disruption is acceptable, not only to the people who own the satellites, ships, and ground radars, but to the third parties who depend on them, like missile defense units?

“There’s a lot that we’re going to have to work out,” said Zabel. “Just yesterday, I was talking to our JFHQ-DoDIN guys” about this.

JFHQ-DoDIN is short for Joint Force Headquarters – Department of Defense Information Networks. The organization is commanded by the DISA director. It reached what’s called Initial Operational Capability just seven months ago, in January, and the military is still figuring out what Full Operational Capability should be. “We’re doing something that’s never been done before,” Zabel said, “and the stakes are very high.”

JFHQ-DoDIN is also the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s efforts to achieve unity of command in cyberspace. It’s intended to bring a worldwide scattering of operations centers, “each one under its own separate chain of command and not coordinated,” under a single commander, Zabel said.

The JFHQ is currently housed only at Fort Meade, Maryland, home of the NSA and Cyber Command. But as it grows and extends its reach, the JFHQ will soon stand up “provisional DoDIN commands” in Central Command, European Command, and Pacific Command. These satellite offices or “forward elements” will have their own authority to give orders to some degree, Zabel said.

So what happens when JFHQ-DoDIN wants one thing but the theater commander wants another? In general terms — and there are devils aplenty in the details — the solution lies not in trying to subordinate one party to the other, but in the longstanding military concept of “supported” and “supporting” commands.

The combatant commander is the one “who’s trying to create the battlefield effect,” said Zabel, whether that effect is shooting down an incoming missile or delivering relief supplies. Everything in the Defense Department ultimately should be in service of creating those effects. The COCOM doesn’t command JFHQ-DoDIN, but its mission is to support him, and his will prevails. In any disagreement, Zabel said, “he’s the one who’s going to win.”

At least, that’s the “simple” answer, Zabel caveated. “It gets more complicated when you have multiple things going on in the world.”

What do you think?