House, Senate at odds on new authority for cyber war unit

The Senate version of the annual defense authorization bill, released Thursday night, veers away from its House counterpart on a change in authority for the U.S. military’s cyber unit.

The House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — which cleared the lower chamber on Wednesday — would elevate U.S. Cyber Command to a standalone warfighting entity.

{mosads}But the provision was notably absent from the Senate version, despite hints from leading Armed Services Committee lawmakers that they were weighing the move.

Chairman John McCain (R-Arz.) and ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) both signaled their support for the idea during an April hearing on the unit.

Cyber Command is currently under the authority of Strategic Command, meaning it must obtain permission before it conducts cyber operations.

Stumping for the move during the April hearing, unit head Adm. Michael Rogers said elevating the unit to a full combatant command would make it more nimble and “generate better mission outcomes.”

The move appeared to have widespread support from lawmakers, who were also skeptical that the unit should remain under the roof of the National Security Agency (NSA), where it currently shares a commander with the spy agency.

“If we move in the direction, which I think we are, of setting up Cyber Command as its own independent combatant command, to have the same person trying to run those two agencies I just think is impractical and almost impossible,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said during the hearing.

The White House, however, opposes a statutory requirement that the unit be elevated.

The administration, which is threatening a veto on the House version of the bill, argues that 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 Senate bill hews to the administration position, placing a limitation on ending Rogers’s “dual-hat” role.

According to the language of the bill, the Secretary of Defense may not end the arrangement until the Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “jointly determine and certify to the appropriate committees of Congress that the end of that arrangement will not pose risks to the military effectiveness of the United States Cyber Command that are unacceptable in the national security interests of the United States.”

Rogers has said that while he supports elevating Cyber Command to a fully combatant command, he does not believe that the unit is ready to come out from under the umbrella of the NSA.

“I agree in the long run. But the reality is we’re just not ready to do that today,” Rogers said in April, noting that the unit’s structure was established six years ago to take advantage of NSA resources.

The two bills also differ in their approach to spending and Army size.

The version of the NDAA passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week adheres to the Obama administration’s 2017 budget request and the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act.

It would also authorize an Army size consistent with the administration’s request of 460,000 troops, compared to 480,000 authorized by the House version.

“My friends in the House and I share the same goal of restoring these arbitrary cuts to military capability and capacity,” McCain said Thursday. “The House has adopted one approach. The Senate has adopted a different path to reach the same objective.”

Tags Angus King Jack Reed John McCain

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