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The Cyber Defense Review

Senior Snake-Eater’s Predictions On The Future Of Terrorism And How It Can Inspire The Future Of DOD Cyber

By CPT Erick Waage | August 14, 2015

Many, many people are writing great things about using U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a model for the development of U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), and many, many people are writing great things about the potential of raising CYBERCOM to a full unified command. However, cyberspace has yet to be recognized as a functional domain deserving of its own dedicated unified command. The comments made by GEN Joseph Votel, commander of SOCOM, at the West Point Senior Conference this past April illustrate the military’s increased emphasis on understanding the vulnerabilities and advantages that cyberspace brings to conflict. The Department of Defense should heed GEN Votel’s words and elevate CYBERCOM to unified command status, and, moreover, use SOCOM as model in developing CYBERCOM. Thanks to our friends at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, below is an excerpt from GEN Votel’s speech* dedicated to describing the implications of terrorism in the future operating environment:

* I have bolded cyberspace-related nouns to emphasize the targets and attack/influence vectors future terrorist may affect and use to achieve their ends.

I firmly believe that the ability of terrorists to rapidly adapt in our complex world, combined with our lack of persistence and imagination, will continue to create blind spots in our counterterrorism efforts. The implications of these gaps are significant.


Terrorist attacks, like the case studies mentioned earlier, are a reflection of the kind of terrorism we’re familiar with today. But, we can ill afford to think that we will continue to face the same foes in the same way using the same tactics.


In the future, we will have to come to grips with new types of terrorists, such as the computer-savvy individual who knows how to exploit rapid technological advances and the ubiquity of the internet. Terrorists in the future will be even more sophisticated and will continually improve their capabilities in virtually all aspects of their operations and support.


As societies become more connected and interdependent, many more will become aware of their cultural disenfranchisement and economic disadvantages. Across the country and around the globe, connected youth are becoming more and more desensitized to unacceptable and violent behavior through absorption of various electronic inputs, to include streaming news, entertainment mediums, and video games.


Computerized traffic and public safety systems and electronic banking will be among the new terrorist targets. It might be that the spectacular attack in the future will lie not in how many people you kill or injure, but in how effectively you can paralyze major urban areas by changing a few ones and zeros, or potentially disrupt the functions of financial systems. Just imagine the lasting impacts of those types of events happening without warning.


The incredible proliferation of devices that connect us to the “internet of everything” will be both tools and targets for terrorists. Experts say that by 2020 there will be more than 40 billion wirelessly connected devices, and that all of them could be easily hacked.


In the future, we should think of disparate and isolated “lone wolves,” still independent, anonymous, and elusive, but now connected to each other in cyberspace—forming “wolf packs.”


These packs can share tactics, techniques, and procedures with one another, instantaneously move resources across the web anonymously—all while they collectively plan and execute their attacks.

GEN Votel’s succinct, yet chilling, prediction of future battlefields arguably places great emphasis on cyberspace and the information environment. To solve problems posed by the millennial-generation of terrorists, GEN Votel goes on in his speech to eloquently emphasize the need for a human-driven network-of-networks to assist in addressing the root, often intangible, causes of terrorism versus attacking the tangible symptoms of terrorism.  Luckily for SOCOM, when it comes to counterterrorism and other special operations forces core activities, it possesses the Title 10 authorities, responsibilities, and acquisition authorities that enable it to effectively achieve its mission.

Approved by congress in 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act allows SOCOM to “carry out assigned missions and, if directed by the President or Secretary of Defense, to plan for and conduct special operations. Along with its Title 10 Authorities and Responsibilities, is the acquisition authority, autonomous from the other Services, to buy equipment, supplies, and services for the command. Within its organizational construct, SOCOM contains special operations components from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines as well as a sub-unified command, the Joint Special Operations Command. The assigned Title 10 authorities and responsibilities, acquisition authority, and component and sub-unified manning, make SOCOM one of the most flexible and resilient organizations and the best fit to address the counterterrorism issues, among other SOF core activities, our nation will face in the coming decades. However, peppering GEN Votel’s counterterrorism predictions is a strong language indicating that the counterterrorist’s will rely on cyber professionals to “sling electrons” rather than “sling lead” to support future counterterror campaigns in hotspots across the globe.

As per Joint Publications 1-0 and 3-0, within the Department of Defense are nine Unified Commands. Of those commands, six are Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) and account for all the air, land, and maritime across the globe. Three are Functional Combatant Commands (FCC) and account for areas unique to special operations (SOCOM), areas unique to strategic capabilities (STRATCOM), and areas unique to global mobility (TRANSCOM). Currently, U.S. Cyber Command is housed within STRATCOM as a subordinate unified command established on a cyber functional basis. Similarly to the catalytic affect that Operation Eagle Claw had on the creation of SOCOM, let us hope that a decision is made before a strategic catastrophe precipitates the decision out of necessity. GEN Votel’s words at this year’s West Point Senior Conference are inspire both a possible organizational model, in SOCOM, to follow for the development of a cyber-dedicated FCC and a possible need for a cyber-dedicated FCC.

The robust Title 10 authorities and responsibilities and unique acquisition authorities that have empowered SOCOM’s numerous successes over the last decade could prove as a valuable handrail in guiding USCYBERCOM’s ascendance to FCC status. Further, a direct line-of-communication to the Joint Chiefs of Staff will likely generate efficiencies while operating in the time-sensitive information environment. Moreover, given that SOCOM traverses all GCCs as well as all warfighting domains (land, maritime, air, and space), and given that cyberspace is itself a globally traversing domain, SOCOM possesses the doctrinal similarities to model CYBERCOM as a FCC.

In his speech, GEN Votel placed special emphasis on cyberspace as a vulnerable domain in which terrorism will find sanctuary. Rather, he identified the information environment, highlighting cyberspace, as vectors through and in which terrorist will attack. Though the criticality of this domain to one unified combatant command may not be enough to support the elevation of CYBERCOM to a FCC, the vulnerabilities and potential advantages of cyberspace are likely felt equally across the other unified combatant commands. Therefore, a FCC, autonomous to any other combatant command’s priorities, could more effectively support all unified combatant commands in this critical domain.

In sum, establishing a FCC, armed with Title 10 responsibilities and authorities and acquisition authorities similar in nature to SOCOM, as the Department of Defenses agent for cyberspace operations may prove a decisive investment when preparing for tomorrow’s conflicts. Unfortunately, to paraphrase one of the Special Operations Forces Truths, “competent [Cyber] Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur”.

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