By John Lasker
If the U.S. Air Force is ever ordered into a cyberwar with a foreign
country or computer-savvy terrorist group, the 100-plus citizen
cybersoldiers at the Air National Guard's 262nd Information Warfare
Aggressor Squadron will boast an advantage other countries can't match:
They built the very software and hardware they're attacking.
That's because the 262nd, based at McChord Air Force Base outside
Tacoma, Washington, draws weekend warriors from Microsoft, Cisco
Systems, Adobe Systems and other tech companies, in a recruitment model
that senior military leadership is touting as vital to the Air Force's
expanded mission to achieve "dominance in cyberspace."
"We ... must capitalize on the talent and expertise of our Guard and
Reserve members who may have direct ties and long experience in
high-tech industry," wrote Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne
in a recent issue of the Air and Space Power Journal, an Air Force
publication. "We must be prepared to defeat our enemies by using
combined arms -- air, ground, sea, space, and cyber weapons systems."
Created out of a combat communications squadron in 2002, the 262nd was
commissioned to carry out simulated cyberattacks within the Air Force.
But the Air Force's determination to develop an offensive cyberwarfare
capability has been well-known since December 2005, when the service
formally revised its mission statement to announce that airmen and
airwomen would henceforth "fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace."
The military's new focus on recruiting talent from high-tech companies
raises a potential conflict of interest. Cisco's routers and switches
are considered the nervous system of the internet worldwide. Microsoft
and Adobe products are used by hundreds of millions across the planet,
and have suffered from programming errors that make them vulnerable to
attack -- which sometimes remain a secret inside the company for weeks
or months before they're patched.
In the hands of an offensive cyberwar unit, advance knowledge of serious
vulnerabilities could be devastating, says Robert Masse, a reformed
hacker who founded Montreal-based computer security firm GoSecure.
Cyberwarfare is "all about knowing exploits no one else knows about,"
says Masse. "You need the exploits to break in.... The people with the
most exploits win."
Some countries -- notably China -- have voiced concerns that Microsoft
might pack backdoors in its closed-source operating systems and
applications. In an effort to curb distrust, in 2003 Microsoft signed a
pact with China, Russia, the United Kingdom, NATO and other nations to
let them see the Windows source code.
But the company is mum on whether it sees ethical problems in its
engineers working part time for a military unit dedicated to hacking its
"Microsoft does not hold specifics about employees that are supporting
the 262nd," says a Microsoft spokeswoman. "So to this end, there really
is no comment on the types of work they are doing." Cisco and Adobe also
declined to comment.
Cybersecurity expert Richard Forno, who runs infowarrior.org, praised
the recruitment effort. "The whole idea of an offensive information
warfare unit, particularly a computer network attack unit, is to build
capabilities for possible exploitation down the road," says Forno. "It
just so happens the U.S. is lucky that the companies building the
world's most popular and widely used IT products are based in the United
Guardsmen and reservists serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year,
and are subject to being called to active or full-time duty for stints
ranging from a handful of months to several years.
Even though the 262nd is named an "aggressor squadron," much of its work
is defensive in nature, says Maj. Philip Osterli, a public information
officer representing the unit.
"They do look at adversarial threat packages from all across the board,"
he says. "We do not have a charter allowing us to conduct CNA (computer
In addition to the 262nd, the Air National Guard draws from tech
companies to staff the 177th Information Aggressor Squadron in Kansas,
while both the 67th Network Warfare Wing and the Air Force Information
Warfare Center recruit from the tech-heavy "Austin corridor" in central
Texas, Wynne wrote.
For this year's defense budget, Congress approved $800,000 for the
planning and design of a new training and operations facility for the
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