WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon will create a Cyber Command to oversee the U.S. military's efforts to protect its computer networks and operate in cyberspace, under an order signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday.
The new headquarters, likely to be based at Fort Meade, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., will be responsible for defending U.S. military systems but not other U.S. government or private networks, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
Asked if the command would be capable of offensive operations as well as protecting the Department of Defense, Whitman declined to answer directly.
"This command is going to focus on the protection and operation of DoD's networks," he said. "This command is going to do what is necessary to be able to do that."
U.S. officials have voiced growing concern in recent years about being vulnerable to attacks on the country's civilian or military networks as technology takes on an ever-increasing role, including in military operations.
President Barack Obama said last month he would name a White House-level czar to coordinate government efforts to fight cybercrime.
The United States has said many attempts to penetrate its networks appear to come from China but it has stopped short of accusing Chinese authorities of being responsible.
Whitman said the new command will consolidate existing Pentagon efforts to protect its networks and operate in cyberspace.
Those efforts currently come under the auspices of U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska, which will also oversee the new headquarters.
The U.S. Department of Defense runs some 15,000 electronic networks and runs some 7 million computers and other information technology devices, Whitman said.
"Our defense networks are constantly probed. There are millions of scans every day," he said.
"The power to disrupt and destroy, once the sole province of nations, now also rests with small groups and individuals, from terrorist groups to organized crime to industrial spies to hacker activists, to teenage hackers," he said.
"We also know that foreign governments are trying to develop offensive cyber capabilities," he added, saying more than 100 foreign intelligence services were trying to hack into U.S. networks.
The new command should begin initial operations by this October and be fully up and running a year later.
The head of the Cyber Command would also be the director of the U.S. National Security Agency, which conducts electronic surveillance and communications interception and is also based at Fort Meade.
Editing by Eric Walsh