U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates formally ordered the creation Tuesday of a new military cyber command that will co-ordinate the Pentagon's efforts to defend its networks and conduct cyberwarfare.

A three-page memo signed by Gates orders U.S. Strategic Command to begin plans to set up a subcommand, be prepared to provide an implementation plan by Sept. 1, and begin initial operation no later than October.

Officials have said the new command would be located at Fort Meade in Maryland, and would be fully ready to go by the end of next year. Gates said in his memo that he is recommending that the director of the National Security Agency — currently Lt.-Gen. Keith Alexander — be tapped to lead the command, in a dual role with his current responsibilities. That job would be upgraded to a four-star general slot.

"Our increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national security," said Gates in the memo, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

He added that the new command "must be capable of synchronizing warfighting effects across the global security environment as well as providing support to civil authorities and international partners."

Hundreds of employees

While the reorganization is just beginning, one senior defence official said the command is not expected to be very large. It would likely involve hundreds, rather than thousands of employees, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal decisions.

The low-key launch of the new military unit reflects the Pentagon's fear that the military might be seen as taking control over the nation's computer networks.

Creation of the command, said Deputy Defence Secretary William Lynn at a recent meeting of cyber experts, "will not represent the militarization of cyberspace."

Lynn said the focus of the command will be on the military's 15,000 networks and its seven million computers, noting that commanders depend on those systems in battle. The military, he said, needs to be able to respond to any intrusion or attack "at network speed."

Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was pleased with the move to increase the military's capabilities in cyberspace, and he urged the Pentagon to work with lawmakers as plans progress. House and Senate members have been working on legislation aimed at bolstering the nation's cyber co-ordination.

Pentagon officials have stressed in recent weeks that the cyber command will not infringe on the Department of Homeland Security, which is the lead agency for other federal digital systems.

U.S. must be better prepared: Obama

President Barack Obama has announced plans to name a cyber co-ordinator for the White House, in order to better co-ordinate the nation's efforts to protect critical computer networks and work more closely with private industry, which owns or controls key financial, electrical and other systems.

The U.S., Obama said earlier this month, is not as prepared as it should be to face threats of cyber espionage or other attacks. 

Government and military officials have acknowledged that U.S. computer networks are constantly assailed by attacks and scans, ranging from nuisance hacking to more nefarious probes and attacks.

Some suggest that the actions at times are a form of cyber espionage from other nations, such as China.

Officials earlier this year disclosed that there was an attack against the electrical grid, and computers at the Pentagon were infected by a virus.