German cyber command becomes official military branch as MPs demand accountability
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has officially inaugurated the newly-created Cyber and Information Space Command (CIR), making it the fifth branch of German military after the army, navy, air force and medical service, Die Zeit reported on Wednesday.
Speaking at the opening ceremony for the CIR in Bonn, von der Leyen said the military will retaliate with “offensive measures” if its computer networks are attacked.
“If the German military's networks are attacked, then we can defend ourselves. As soon as an attack endangers the functional and operational readiness of combat forces, we can respond with offensive measures,” she said, as cited by Reuters.
Though the minister refused to elaborate on such retaliatory measures, she added the new cyber command would be scrambled in the event of an inbound attack on German government agencies.
Based in Bonn, the capital of the former West Germany, the CIR will go online with just 260 IT specialists, but will grow to 13,500 military and civilian personnel in future. The new command is expected to become fully combat-ready by 2021.
Earlier, Lieutenant General Ludwig Leinhos, the CIR’s commander, told Focus magazine Germany has now become the first NATO member “to have a self-contained operational command,” adding that Berlin’s partners “are following [the creation of cyber command] with great interest.”
The Bundeswehr’s cyber command will operate around the clock to protect its own IT infrastructure and computer-assisted weapons systems, also tackling inbound online threats, Leinhos noted.
He added that the military are keen to develop offensive capabilities, saying, “To be able to defend yourself, one has to know which options for attack… exist.”
Attacks on the Bundeswehr’s computer networks occur on a daily basis, Leinhos revealed.
“We are in a constant race between the development of attack options and defensive capabilities,” he told Focus.
However, top parliamentary officials raised concerns over authority to attack being given to the new cyber-command. Hans-Peter Bartels, head of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee, told Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung “any offensive action undertaken by the Bundeswehr – which is accountable to the parliament as written down in the Basic Law – needs an appropriate parliamentary mandate.”
Bartels said this provision applies not only to attacks launched by conventional military, but also to “virtual assaults on enemy computer networks.” In Germany, where bitter memories of the Nazi past are still alive, the public is increasingly wary of offensive operations involving German troops.
According to a 2014 poll by Infratest Dimap, 61 percent of Germans saw the military’s overseas deployments as a bad thing. In 2015, a YouGov poll said 68 percent of respondents opposed taking part in military interventions, with only 18 percent welcoming it.
Currently, only a few of major military powers have cyber capabilities. The US established the Cyber Command – subordinate to US Strategic Command – in 2009; the command is believed to be working in collaboration with NSA, and was headed by the agency’s director since its inception.
In February this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the military had established information operations troops that would be in charge of what he described as “counter-propaganda.” Similar cyber warfare units are said to exist in China, though Beijing has never admitted having such capabilities.