WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday he was elevating the status of the Pentagon's U.S. Cyber Command to help spur development of cyber weapons to deter attacks and punish intruders.
In a statement, Trump said the unit would be ranked at the level of Unified Combatant Command focussed on cyberspace operations.
Cyber Command's elevation reflects a push to strengthen U.S. capabilities to interfere with the military programs of adversaries such as North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and Islamic State's ability to recruit, inspire and direct attacks, three U.S. intelligence officials said this month, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Cyber Command had been subordinate to the U.S. Strategic Command, which is also responsible for military space operations, nuclear weapons and missile defence.
Once elevated, Cyber Command would have the same status as U.S. Strategic Command and eight other unified commands that control U.s. military forces and are composed of personnel from multiple branches of the armed services.
The Pentagon did not specify how long the elevation process would take.
Current and former officials said a leading candidate to head U.S. Cyber Command was Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, currently director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
Trump also said the defence secretary was also considering separating the U.S. Cyber Command from the National Security Agency (NSA). Cyber Command's mission is to shut down and, when ordered, counter cyber attacks. The NSA's role is to gather intelligence and generally favors monitoring enemies' cyber activities.
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both strong voices on security matters, praised the move and said it would boost the command's abilities.
Still, McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said more steps were needed to meet the nation's cyber security challenges.
"We must develop a clear policy and strategy for deterring and responding to cyber threats. We must also develop an integrated, whole-of-government approach to protect and defend the United States from cyberattacks," he said in a statement.
The new combatant command will improve U.S. capabilities to punish foreign cyberattacks and discourage attempts to disrupt critical U.S. infrastructure such as financial networks, electric grids, and medical systems. It will establish a cyber version of the nuclear doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the three U.S. officials said
The U.S. is more vulnerable to cyber intrusions than its most capable adversaries, including China, Russia, and North Korea, because its economy is more dependent on the internet, two of the officials said. As other nations improve their communications networks, their vulnerability will grow, they added.
(Reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Heavey. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, John Walcott and Warren Strobel.; Editing by Franklin Paul and Andrew Hay)