By Tom Espiner
02 April 2008
The US Air Force Cyber Command is just as interested in attack as
defence, according to a senior general
The US Air Force Cyber Command is developing capabilities to inflict
denial of service, confidential data loss, data manipulation, and system
integrity loss on its adversaries, and to combine these with physical
attacks, according to a senior US general.
Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER), a US military unit set up in
September 2007 to fight in cyberspace, is due to become fully
operational in the autumn under the aegis of the US Eighth Air Force.
Lieutenant general Robert J Elder, Jr, who commands the Eighth Air
Force's Barksdale base, told ZDNet.co.uk at the Cyber Warfare Conference
2008 that Air Force is interested in developing its capabilities to
attack enemy forces as well as defend critical national infrastructure.
"Offensive cyberattacks in network warfare make kinetic attacks more
effective, [for example] if we take out an adversary's integrated
defence systems or weapons systems," said Elder. "This is exploiting
cyber to achieve our objectives."
However, this is a double-edged sword, as adversaries will also attempt
to develop similar capabilities, especially considering the US
military's heavy use of technology, said Elder.
"Terrorists and criminals are doing the same thing. We depend so heavily
as a military on the use of cyber, we have to be cautious about it,"
said Elder. "Cyber gives us a huge advantage but adversaries look at our
capabilities and see areas they can undermine. We need to protect our
asymmetric advantage . on the one hand by having people further exploit
cyber, and on the other by having mission assurance."
This problem is made more pressing by the military's reliance on the
public internet to perpetrate cyberattacks. The infrastructure the US
military uses to both launch and defend against cyberattacks runs
through the public internet system. Military networks such as the Global
Information Grid are linked to US government and critical national
infrastructure systems, which in turn are linked to the public internet.
Adversary systems are subverted by the US military through public
channels . however, this also leaves the US military open to attack
through the same channels, said Elder.
"The infrastructure on which the Air Force depends is controlled by both
military and commercial entities and is vulnerable to attacks and
manipulation," said Elder.
Other causes for military concern include possible supply-chain
vulnerabilities, where vulnerabilities are introduced into chipsets
during manufacturing that an adversary can then exploit, and electronics
"We need to make sure chips aren't manipulated . we're worried about
information assurance just like everyone else," said Elder.
Other problems being faced by the Cyber Command are centred around
different Air Force and military units needing to improve their channels
of communication before the autumn.
"We have 10,000 people to do this, but the problem is they are
stovepiped," said Elder.
"Stovepiping" has two complementary meanings. In IT terms it describes
information held in separate databases which is difficult to access due
to its multiple locations . the UK equivalent term would be "siloed". In
intelligence-gathering terms . the Eighth also serves as the US Air
Force information operations headquarters . "stovepiping" refers to
information which has been passed up the chain of command without
undergoing due diligence.
Elder said that, while he was satisfied with AFCYBER's covert operations
capabilities and its demonstrable ability to remotely destroy missile
defence systems, he wished to further develop its attack capabilities.
"IT people set up traditional IT networks with the idea of making them
secure to operate and defend," said Elder. "The traditional security
approach is to put up barriers, like firewalls . it's a defence thing .
but everyone in an operations network is also part of the [attack]
force. We're trying to move away from clandestine operations. We're
looking for real physics . a bigger bang resulting in collateral
US Cyber Command also needs to develop the means to quickly pinpoint
exactly where an attack is coming from, to be able to retaliate, and
also to deter potential attackers.
"We haven't done a good job in the cyber-domain just yet," said Elder.
"We have to demonstrate the capability to do [rapid forensics] then
message that to our adversaries. For deterrence we have to clearly
identify the attacker. We're working on rapid forensics to determine who
the adversary is."
While cyber-espionage was inevitable, said Elder, knowledge of the US
military being able to pinpoint the source of cyberattacks could deter
assaults on critical national infrastructure that use Supervisory
Control And Data Acquisition (Scada) systems.
"We're not going to deter cyber-espionage, but we might be able to deter
attacks on Scada networks," said Elder.
As well as developing forensics tools, Cyber Command is also coding
tools to check for incursions, including a "Cyber Sidearm", which will
monitor activity on the Combat Information Transport System . the US Air
"We've been working to get the functionality built . we're supposed to
have it in the next couple of months," said Elder.
US Eighth Air Force said it was seeking partnerships with both public-
and private-sector organisations to "secure cyberspace". The Department
for Homeland Security's Strategy to Secure Cyberspace includes
establishing a public-private architecture to gauge and respond to
cyberthreats, and increase information-sharing between public- and
private-sector organisations and the military.
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