The U.S. should create a separate cyber service following years of poor recruitment, lack of coordination by the existing military branches and overall absence of culture for the country’s digital warriors, according to a report from an influential think tank.

“Years after designating cyberspace as a warfighting domain, leaders must acknowledge the writing on the wall,” states the analysis issued on Monday by the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The nation “has a limited window of opportunity to reorganize, allocate resources, and develop sustainable cyber force readiness,” it warns. The military “has failed to fix the problem on its own. Only Congress can create a new independent service, so it is time for lawmakers to act.”

The study comes as lawmakers prepare to craft their annual defense authorization bill. An increasing number of them see a cyber-specific military service as an inevitability, especially as Russia and China continue to grow and mature their own digital corps and race to gain the edge on new technologies like artificial intelligence.

The Senate draft of last year’s policy bill included an amendment that would have tapped an independent third-party to study establishing a Cyber Force as the nation’s sixth military branch. However, the provision was cut from the final, compromise measure. Anything lawmakers do this year would take effect in 2025.

The FDD report, which draws on interviews with over 75 anonymous active-duty and retired U.S. military officers with experience in the cyber domain, cites a litany of challenges facing U.S. Cyber Command, such as an inability to create a talent pipeline to meet its growing needs and mediocre support from the existing large military services.

The think tank recommends an initial Cyber Force of roughly 10,000 personnel with a budget of $16.5 billion. It would be  placed under the Army, which has been lauded in recent years for its focus on the digital mission.

“If done properly, the overall readiness of the military’s cyber forces should not suffer during a transition to an independent Cyber Force,” according to the study. “Instead, cyber forces would gain more operational focus and direction while consolidating acquisition processes and maximizing budgetary effectiveness.

Mum on ‘CYBERCOM 2.0’

While the analysis details past and present arguments against creating a new armed service, it doesn’t address in-depth a new policy push the Defense Department calls “Cyber Command 2.0.” 

In January, the Pentagon’s top cyber policy official described it as an umbrella term for several requirements Congress enacted recently to examine how DOD is “organized to generate, train, equip, and employ cyber operations forces.” 

The resulting studies will inform recommendations to the secretary later this year for how to “enhance the department’s cyber posture.”

“The challenge is that there hasn’t been a lot of transparency around what CYBERCOM 2.0 actually means,” Erica Lonergan, one of the report’s authors, told reporters last week.

Still, the discussion “reflects the basic premise of what we’re saying in this piece, which is that there is this challenge of readiness, that CYBERCOM is incrementally gaining increasing service like authorities and that is raising some real questions about how we are organized and whether we’re organized optimally to fight it through cyberspace,” she added.

Mark Montgomery, senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at FDD and a co-author of the report, said they would brief it to lawmakers soon.

“We’re going to make a push” for an outside, independent study of creating a Cyber Force,  said Montgomery, the former head of the congressionally created Cyberspace Solarium Commission, noting that faced “with an increasing threat, we’re not growing our force in a meaningful manner.

But he hedged on whether it would ultimately make the cut in this year’s defense bill or future legislation. 

“I hope we can get on there. If not, we’ll keep pushing,” he said.

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