Officials and business leaders in Maryland are backing a proposal to elevate U.S. Cyber Command to a unified combatant command — one of 10 charged with carrying out missions around the world — a move they hope will bring prestige and more jobs to the state.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger praised the idea on the floor of the House last week, before lawmakers approved the annual defense funding bill, which this year included language directing the Pentagon to make the change.
The Baltimore County Democrat represents Fort Meade, where Cyber Command is headquartered.
The upgrade, he said, "recognizes the fact that cyberspace is the battlefield of the 21st Century."
"It only makes sense to have a command that can respond nimbly to cyber threats and organize our offensive and defensive efforts," he said.
Current combatant commands include Northern Command, which defends North America, Central Command, which prosecutes wars in the Middle East, and Special Operations Command, which oversees special operatons units worlwide.
Officials say raising U.S. Cyber Command to their level would cement Maryland's position as the home of the U.S. computer warfare effort.
Pulling it out from under its current parent organization, U.S. Strategic Command, could also pave the way for it to take on more complicated missions.
Tim O'Ferrall is manager of the Fort Meade Alliance, a coalition of local business leaders who advocate for the Army installation in Anne Arundel County. He said the upgrade would be a huge opportunity for the state.
"It ensures a lot of the discussions that have been happening in and around Fort Meade about growth opportunities become more of a reality," he said.
Cyber Command was established in 2009 with the aim of improving coordination among the Defense Department's computer warfare units.
The command has been working with the service branches to raise a force of 6,000 troops, civilians and contractors to carry out missions. It works closely with the National Security Agency — both are headed by Adm. Michael S. Rogers — to help keep other nations' hackers out of military networks while devising ways of breaking into computers run by U.S. adversaries.
There is such high demand for those forces that some are being deployed before even being declared formally combat-ready.
In February, the Defense Department announced that Cyber Command had been given its first wartime assignment: disrupting computer networks used by the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
As Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work put it last month: "We are dropping cyber bombs."
Commanders are now forming a special task force to better coordinate the anti-Islamic State cyber campaign. Joint Task Force Ares is to be led by a three-star general, Cyber Command officials said in a statement.
The idea of elevating Cyber Command has attracted support for years. In 2013, an Air Force officer wrote an article comparing the idea to the creation of Special Operations Command in 1987, which has the twin responsibilities for training commandos and sending them on missions.
Rogers told a Senate committee last month that elevating the organization's status would give it more say in how strategies and budgets are developed at the Pentagon and make it better at its job.
"A combatant commander designation would allow us to be faster," Rogers said.
Despite the support for the change, the White House threatened to veto the House bill, in part because the administration objects to legislators micromanaging the Defense Department.
"The Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should retain the flexibility to recommend to the President changes to the unified command plan that they believe would most effectively organize the military to address an ever-evolving threat environment," the administration said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said last month it was time to consider cyberwarfare's place in the department's command structure. The Pentagon did not respond to questions about whether the department has made a final decision.
And while the measure has passed the House, its fate in the Senate remains unclear. The Senate Armed Services Committee did not include the idea in the version of the funding bill it released Friday.
Both of Maryland's senators support the move.
"America is fighting a cyber war every hour of every day," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said in a statement. "Elevating CYBERCOM to a Combatant Command will give those charged with the defense of our nation more of the tools they need."
A spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Cardin said he was working to have the measure written into the Senate bill.
Mikulski and Ruppersberger both said they think the boost in the command's status could bring more jobs to Fort Meade. The installaion has seen steady growth since 2005.
J. Michael Hayes, the retired Marine Corps general who heads the state Office of Military and Federal Affairs, said any job growth would probably be modest at first.
But as Cyber Command is given more work, he said, it could attract more staff and contracting dollars to develop digital weaponry.
Another spurt could come if Cyber Command were separated from the National Security Agency, because many officials currently have roles in both organizations.
"The assumption would be that there would be less of that," Hayes said.