Former NATO commander and retired Navy admiral James Stavridis speaks often of his proposal to develop a fifth U.S. military service branch -- a cyber force that would own operations in the virtual domain.
But comments last week from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller indicate the time has not come for that idea just yet.
Speaking at a San Diego panel moderated by Stavridis on Feb. 19, Richardson and Neller both declined to offer support for such a cyber force when pressed on the topic.
"I think that this must be integrated. I think if we have a completely standalone type of thing, it's just going to be much more difficult to integrate it into operations, into planning and execution, debriefing, all of that," Richardson said. "So while there are potentially some unique skill sets and capabilities, it's through that deep integration into the fundamentals, the basic ingredients of warfare going forward that I think is going to make cyber achieve its full potential."
Neller, who has promised to expand the Marine Corps' cyber capabilities by the end of next year, allowed that more discussion was needed on the topic, but concluded that the current system worked well.
"Adm. Richardson is correct; it's a very integrated team," Neller said. "Now, will [U.S. Cyber Command] no longer be a sub-unified command? Will it be a separate component? That's probably going to be something that's going to come out in [future] discussions ... right now I think we're in a good place but we have to grow our capability in support of the integrated joint cyber force."
Stavridis said the responses from the two services chiefs to his idea of a cyber military branch were an indicator that the conversation about cyber "is really just beginning."
"I have not advocated for the immediate establishment of a cyber force but that now is the time to have a conversation about it. And I will make the point that if you go back a hundred years ago, the analogy would be the Air Force," Stavridis said. "Today I don't think we could imagine our military without an Air Force. I suspect in 50 to 100 years we will say of course we need a cyber force."
Currently the U.S. military cyber presence consists of Cyber Command, which falls under U.S. Strategic command and is led by Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, and individual cyber commands organized within each of the military service branches.
During the AFCEA West Conference held last week in San Diego, Marine Corps and Navy leaders emphasized the importance of developing better cyber practices and addressing serious vulnerabilities that exist within military networks.
But Stavridis' proposals on future cyber warfare found opposition on more than one front.
In a January article for the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings Magazine, Stavridis wrote that a dedicated cyber military branch would be "be smaller in size than the Marine Corps with comparatively low physical-fitness standards and noticeably relaxed grooming standards ... the uniform of the day might resemble that of a conservatively dressed Googler."
Asked about the possibility of relaxed physical or appearance standards for his cyber warriors, Neller did not budge.
He said, "They will be Marines."