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By Robert S. Dudney
Editor in Chief
Vol. 90, No. 11
The Air Force should ignore the complainers and press on toward its
The Air Force, having openly declared its intent to dominate cyberspace,
is now getting blowback in Washington. This is strange, given that USAF
is a pace-setter in the virtual world and lives or dies by what happens
USAF=E2=80=99s cyber stature is not in doubt. It has waged cyberwar in three
recent conflicts. It has signed out a new mission statement putting
cyberspace on par with air and space as a combat domain. It has
activated a provisional major command dedicated to cyber warfighting. It
has poured billions into the mission.
For all that, its actions arouse concerns. What is USAF up to? Where is
it going? The service clearly has a big stake in cyberspace, but many in
the defense world fret about its aggressiveness.
Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., commander of 8th Air Force and the service
leader on cyberwar issues, reports that questioners often challenge him
about USAF=E2=80=99s motives and willingness to cooperate with other services
and agencies. =E2=80=9CThey say, =E2=80=98The Air Force put this [cyberspace] in its
mission statement; do you think you own it?=E2=80=99=E2=80=89=E2=80=9D Elder notes.
To this, Elder has a ready response: =E2=80=9CNo, we don=E2=80=99t own it.=E2=80=9D USAF does,
however, have a deep interest in what goes on in this vast netted world
of data banks, sensors, and command and control elements. That is
precisely as it should be, and the Air Force should ignore the
complainers and press on toward its goal.
That goal is hardly a military secret. In a May 23 speech, Secretary of
the Air Force Michael W. Wynne stated, =E2=80=9CIn the future it will be vital
that we ... dominate cyberspace.=E2=80=9D
The basis for this belief can be discerned in =E2=80=9CVictory in Cyberspace,=E2=80=9D a
study released in October for the Eaker Institute, the research arm of
the Air Force Association. The author, defense analyst Rebecca Grant,
expertly traces the development of cyber networks and how they largely
define today=E2=80=99s Air Force. She writes that, in the 1990s, cyber power
advanced from being a limited, intelligence-based tool to an actual
Grant emphasizes that USAF relies on digitized information to power its
advanced combat systems and magnify targeting, attack, and other
capabilities. =E2=80=9CIn fact, the Air Force=E2=80=99s formation, over the past decade,
of secure networks for expeditionary operations has become central to
the way it fights,=E2=80=9D she says.
The flow of data to command and control networks or airborne battle
networks is the fuel of USAF might in the physical world. Cyber networks
make possible what is termed =E2=80=9Ccross-domain operations.=E2=80=9D Simply put,
execution of key tasks in =E2=80=9Cphysical=E2=80=9D air and space depends on =E2=80=9Cvirtual=E2=80=9D
Striking mobile targets, for example, would be impossible without
networks in cyberspace to swiftly distribute images and signals.
Conversely, Grant warns, cyberspace looms as a potentially fatal
Achilles=E2=80=99 heel. The military=E2=80=94especially USAF=E2=80=94has entrusted more and more
of its warfighting =E2=80=9Cvaluables=E2=80=9D to these networks, she says, in search of
faster communications and data transfer. That has created
In Grant=E2=80=99s estimation, any adversary who can impair access to cyberspace
can greatly diminish the speed, range, and flexibility that USAF
currently provides to a joint force commander.
The networks comprise physical, virtual, and cognitive =E2=80=9Csocial=E2=80=9D systems.
If any fail, combat capability would suffer. Thus, writes Grant,
=E2=80=9Cdefending the ability to use established cyberspace systems that
enhance the application of air and space power amounts to Job One=E2=80=9D for
The Grant study suggests that, in a tactical sense, the bulk of USAF=E2=80=99s
work focuses on defeating intruders via detection and deflection, before
they can paralyze cyber systems, alter stored data, or steal classified
Even so, effective defense of the networks requires offensive cyber
weapons, too. These are among the most highly classified of instruments,
but their use would be obvious. Elder told an Eaker Institute audience
on Oct. 6, =E2=80=9CWe=E2=80=99re probably going to leave a little message that goes on
the screen, that says, =E2=80=98This computer network attack brought to you by
the United States Air Force.'"
Former USAF Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, another Eaker panelist,
likened the Air Force approach to dominance of the air through defensive
and offensive counterair operations, noting that both are vital to
Still, Grant writes, three decades of experience suggests that
cyberspace, with its multitude of public connections, never can be
completely secured. That means the Air Force must prepare ways to
continue fighting even when under virtual attack.
Claims of the critics notwithstanding, the Air Force wants as much help
as it can get. It seeks to team with a large number of
partners=E2=80=94military, civilian, law enforcement, commercial=E2=80=94in hopes of
maximizing US defensive strength.
Example: USAF will fund 200 airman billets at the headquarters of the
National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, Md. They will support NSA=E2=80=99s
network intelligence work in return for reciprocal NSA help in various
The Air Force also seeks to establish a dedicated cyber unit in the Air
National Guard in every state, Elder says.
In the end, though, none of these partners will be able to guarantee the
security of USAF=E2=80=99s access to cyberspace. The Air Force itself must take
We are proud of the Air Force for moving out and meeting this challenge
head on. In a sense, USAF has consciously made itself dependent on cyber
systems that can be attacked and defeated more readily than is the case
with its physical systems. Thus, it is now up to the Air Force to make
sure the dangers are kept in bounds. The Air Force is uniquely placed to
master the challenge. The technology and techniques are available.
=E2=80=9CIt=E2=80=99s time to get started,=E2=80=9D Jumper told the Eaker Institute audience.
=E2=80=9CIt=E2=80=99s time for us to organize ourselves and get started on this problem
in a formal way.... This isn=E2=80=99t about ownership. This is about starting
down a path,=E2=80=9D at the end of which lies effective dominance of a critical
new warfighting domain.
Copyright Air Force Association. All rights reserved.
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