Now that Congress has finally confirmed Gen. Keith Alexander for his fourth star and the duty of Commander, US Cyber Command, he has a tough road ahead.  Cyber Command will be a sub-unified command under U.S. Strategic Command.  It is not an intelligence organization – despite Alexander being dual hated as the Director of the National Security Agency – but is what the military refers to as a warfighting command.

Like U.S. Special Operations Command, Cyber Command will provide forces to the Geographic Combatant Commanders and in some cases will directly execute over-arching/global missions. To do this, Alexander will have control of components from each of the services. The Air Force will “give” its 24th Air Force, the Navy its 10th Fleet, the Army its Cyber Command, and the Marines their Marine Forces, Cyber.

Alexander is a Joint Commander who must blend these elements into a cohesive force to deal with an enormous set of challenges in a unified manner. The first challenge he faces is getting all his serviced components on the same sheet of music. Please note, this is no mean task. They are all different and all had diverse “birthing” processes. None of the differences are born of malice, or even inter-service rivalries; they are simply products of each organization’s respective cultures.

The 24th Air Force came first.  The AF originally wanted to “own” cyber much the way they really own space today. They saw logic in this approach and roared down the road to capture the prize, offering the others a fait accompli.  They were disappointed when the Secretary of Defense said “no” and backed off making cyber a Major Command with a four star commander.

Today it is a numbered Air Force (three star level) under Air Force Space Command.  The organization is fairly conventional and is based on the model of other AF set ups. They have made the specialty designations indicate that it is an operational, vice a support-type command. They have made a great deal of progress in designing and re-orienting the career paths and education tracks for both their enlisted and officer level personnel.

The Navy came next, with the 10th Fleet.  This is a reactivation of a historic (WW II) organization to take on a twenty-first century task.  This is also a three-star level command, and it at least appears to be modeled on other more conventional Navy organizations. In reality it is not.

The Navy has pushed together its Intel and Communications organizations to create both the command and the Navy Staff entities with which it will work.  They gave the command to a gruff Surface Warfare officer who was told to get it up and running as fast as he could. They are taking a look at many innovations that will “break the mold” as far as Navy practices go. Things like every sailor going to sea, which has long been a virtual commandment in the Navy.  The cyber forces may never leave home. The Navy has not gotten too far into how all this will happen yet, but their boss has said it publicly, and in the Navy, that means it will happen.

The Army has gone very slowly.  Initially, the only real element they had was a battalion, commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  Rather than jumping right into a solution, the Army (again following service character) began to conduct a Capabilities Based Assessment for Cyber. This is a laborious, detailed (OK, painful) process that analyzes the needs, the intent, and the missions, and at the end of its long pipeline, spits out a full DOTMLPF solution set (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Manpower, Logistics, Policy, Facilities).  Based on that study, the Army is now standing up a Cyber Command that will reside at Ft. Belvoir, VA. They had previously established a Task Force on the Army Staff that combined Intel, Signal, and operations elements under the Director of Operations. Where the Air Force and the Navy see themselves as possible leaders of strategic cyber, the Army has focused primarily on protecting its own networks and executing tactical and operational-level missions in support of its commanders in the field.

I confess to a lack of hard knowledge on the Marine Corps plans but have been told they are thus far separate from the Navy and more akin to the Army in that they are more tactically focused.  Their contribution will be small and specialized, as befitting the Marine Corps missions and size.

The bottom line of all this is that Gen. Alexander now has to make these elements work in harmony.  The military is much better at this sort of collaboration today than it has ever been before. In cyber, however, differences can be more problematic than in the other domains. Alexander must push for more unity of method and not just unity of purpose. Cyber is not the realm to allow service distinctions to continue if they in anyway hinder mission accomplishment.

Alexander is uniquely suited for this job.  In fact, one Senator lamented during his confirmation process that while he knew Alexander could do this job, he was not sure that in a few years we could find a replacement. His task is a difficult one, but in the end, the nation’s military networks should be better protected and our enemies suitably deterred. Additionally, Alexander’s forces should also be able to support and advise their counterparts at DHS in the protection of our civilian networks.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More