U.S. Cyber Command slips behind schedule

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Cyber Command, responsible for shielding 15,000 U.S. military networks and for being ready to go to war in cyberspace, has slipped behind schedule for becoming fully operational, the Defense Department said on Friday.

The command is still putting necessary capabilities in place, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. It had been due to be declared fully operational no later than this month, a deadline some had read as October 1.

Cyber Command leads day-to-day protection of all U.S. defense networks and is designed to mount offensive strikes if ordered to do so.

It began operating in May 2010, seven months later than initially ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates ordered the command’s creation in June 2009 to consolidate far-flung units under a four-star general after determining the cyber threat had outgrown the military’s existing structures.

More than 100 foreign intelligence organizations are trying to break into U.S. networks, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Some “already have the capacity to disrupt” U.S. information infrastructure.”

Whitman declined to name a new target for reaching full operational capability. The important thing, he said, was building the capabilities, not an “artificial date.”

The department blamed the schedule slip chiefly on what Whitman called a seven-month delay in Senate confirmation of Army officer Keith Alexander as head of the new unit located at Fort Meade, Maryland. Alexander was confirmed on May 7.

Alexander, 58, also heads the National Security Agency, the Fort Meade-based Defense Department arm that protects national security information and intercepts foreign communications.

He told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee last week that putting cyber defenses fully in place was urgent. At the time, he voiced no expectation of a delay in reaching full operating capability.

“The need is great and there is no time to lose,” Alexander said in an opening statement to the panel on September 23.

He cited the emergence of new tools that could damage or destroy systems and “have effects approaching those of weapons of mass destruction.”

A Senate Armed Services Committee staff member said the delay in Alexander’s confirmation followed what he called the Defense Department’s “failure to provide information to the committee in a timely fashion.”

Committee Chairman Carl Levin said in opening Alexander’s April 15 confirmation hearing that the panel had moved “methodically to gain an understanding of what the Congress is being asked to approve and what the key cyberspace issues are that need to be addressed.”

The 24th Air Force, a Cyber Command component, was declared fully operational on Friday by General Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, the Air Force said.

Editing by Peter Cooney