The military could, in the future, create a separate force to fight battles over computer networks, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in his first domestic visit with troops at Fort Meade on Friday.
A servicemember in the audience asked if the military's cyber efforts could spawn a new service, similar to how the Army Air Corps eventually became the Air Force.
"It may come to that, and I think it's an excellent question," he said. "We have given some thought to that. And for right now, we're walking before we run ... that's one of the futures that cyber might have."
The field of computer warfare is still in its infancy, but the Defense Department aims to have Cyber Command at Fort Meade and other cyber units fully staffed with 6,000 people by next year. The Maryland base has emerged as a major center for the military's cyberwarfare efforts, which draw heavily on the expertise of the National Security Agency.
"My view is that we're doing the right thing in having the leadership of those two organizations in the same place,” Carter said. “And one way of thinking about that is that we just don't have enough good people like you to spread around, and we need to cluster our hits."
The military has declared cyberspace a domain on equal footing to air, land, sea and space. But the Defense Department is still figuring out the details of how the new mode of warfare will fit in with its existing military missions.
"The institutions that you join, be they military services or field agencies or new ... commands, they are trying to figure out how to welcome this new breed of warrior to their ranks," Carter said. "What's the right way to do that? How do you fit in?"
Richard Bejtlich, a computer security strategist based in Washington, said on Twitter that Carter's remarks were the first time he had heard a defense secretary mention the possibility of separate cyber force.
"Could March 13, 2015 be the date that historians mark as a positive step toward creating a separate US Cyber Force?" he asked.
Carter said that the U.S. military would work to keep the Internet open and a place that reflects American values. He vowed to be transparent in how its mission in cyberspace was evolving, but noted that some of its work with ties to the intelligence community is shrouded in secrecy.
"I know that some of you can't be seen on television because of the nature of your work," Carter said. "And [that] it's rare that media come into the premises of this organization. But I wanted not only you to know how important we know what you do is for the country, but everyone else to hear that as well."