War in the Third Domain

April 1, 2007

When the Air Force formed Air Force Space Command in 1982, it marked formal recognition that space was a distinct operating arena. The first commander, Gen. James V. Hartinger, said, “Space is a place. … It is a theater of operations, and it was just a matter of time until we treated it as such.”

Meanwhile, around that same time, sci-fi author William Gibson published a novel entitled Neuromancer, a work that gave the world a strange new term—“cyberspace.” The book didn’t call cyberspace “a place” but a “consensual hallucination” of billions of humans. Few military men gave it much thought.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, though, it’s deja vu all over again. The Air Force has come to recognize cyberspace, like “regular” space, as an arena of human activity—including armed activity. It is, to reprise Hartinger, a theater of operations.

The Air Force took a first big organizational step along those lines last fall. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, announced a plan to form a new Cyber Command to be established by Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., head of 8th Air Force. Its purpose: Organize, train, and equip forces for cyber-war.

Though Cyber Command has not yet reached full major command status, it already is providing combat capabilities in cyberspace to the unified US Strategic Command and combatant commanders, according to Air Force officials.

Cyber Command has in place systems and capabilities for integrating cyber operations into other Air Force global strike options. All that is lacking, according to one top official, are the “organizational and operational constructs” to integrate cyber ops with those of air and space operations.

The Air Force believes it must be able to control cyberspace, when need be, as it at times controls the air. The goal is to make cyberspace capabilities fully available to commanders.

“Almost everything I do is either on an Internet, an intranet, or some type of network—terrestrial, airborne, or spaceborne,” said Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, Langley AFB, Va. “We’re already at war in cyberspace—have been for many years.”

The creation of Cyber Command received not only lots of attention but also produced lots of confusion. What, actually, does its establishment mean for the Air Force? For the US military

In answering the questions, definitions are surprisingly important. Lani Kass, special assistant to the Chief of Staff and director of the Chief’s Cyberspace Task Force, is at pains to declare that cyberspace is not a mission, not an operational method or technique, and not just about computers.

“Cyberspace is a warfighting domain,” Kass said flatly.

The National Military Strategy for Cyberspace Operations, adopted in 2006, defines cyberspace as “a domain characterized by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to store, modify, and exchange data via networked systems and associated physical infrastructures.”

Thus, said Kass, the virtual world is “like air, space, land, and sea”—all places in which US forces operate. The whole electromagnetic spectrum constitutes the maneuver space, where forces range globally at the speed of light.

This is a startlingly expansive concept. Moseley, in fact, has quipped that cyberspace today includes everything “from DC to daylight”—that is, direct current to visible light waves.

We Fight There

Kass added that the cyber world comprises not just computer networks but also any physical system using any of various kinds of electromagnetic energy—“infrared waves, radio waves, microwave, gamma rays,” she said, “and rays we have not thought about.”

By this definition, someone who uses a computer to crash a Web site used by terrorists has carried out a cyber operation. The same can be said of someone who jams local cell phone traffic to keep the enemy from detonating a remotely controlled bomb. Using a space-based satellite to collect infrared imagery? That, too, is a cyber operation.

“You could actually say that operations in cyberspace preceded operations in the air,” Kass maintained. After all, the telegraph—“the Victorian Internet”—ran on electricity and was a tool of military operations. It was a cyber weapon, she said.

The Air Force’s goal is plain: to be able to operate in and, if necessary, dominate this nebulous, artificial “place” in which humans interact over networks without regard to physical geography. It is USAF’s third domain of combat.

Wynne and Moseley on Dec. 7, 2005 published a new mission statement for the service. In it, cyberspace joined “air” and “space” in the catalog of Air Force domains. They said that the Air Force, from now on, would “fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace.”

Kass and her colleagues on the Cyberspace Task Force see this development as a historic step. In Kass’ office hangs a painting that depicts two World War I biplanes—one American, one German—in a swirling dogfight. Kass said it reminds her that today’s airpower, so supremely advanced and sophisticated, had humble origins and that cyber power stands at a comparable stage in its development.

Why is the Air Force only now demarcating and defining cyberspace as an operational domain? In the past several years, it has been made critically important by the emergence of two interrelated factors. The confluence of these developments has created a worrisome, if not explosive, situation.

Rise of the cyber badlands. Simply put, cyberspace has become major bad-guy territory. Air Force officials say it never has been easier for adversaries—whether terrorists, criminals, or nation-states—to operate with cunning and sophistication in the cyber domain.

Kass said there is “recognition by our leadership that … cyberspace is a domain in which our enemies are operating, and operating extremely effectively because they’re operating unconstrained.”

When it comes to cost and skill, the barriers to entry are indeed low. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” said Kass. The ubiquity of low-cost off-the-shelf cyber technology means would-be cyber-warriors don’t need governmental financing or even backing of a well-organized criminal or terrorist network.

“One has to have concern about a range of potential adversaries, including other nation-states, including terror networks and … transnational criminal enterprises,” says John Arquilla, author of Networks and Netwars and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Arquilla also worries about a “wildcard” threat: “individual hackers of very great skill.”

He believes 21st century warfare is a new animal, one in which nonstate actors have more prominence than ever before. The cyber domain is tailor-made for this new kind of warfare, he added, and traditional militaries neglect it at the peril of the states they are defending.

“As opposed to traditional physical warfare where you tend to focus on the major militaries of the time, here you have to give equal attention to a great nation as well as to a particular network,” said Arquilla. “And of course there may be ties between nations and networks, like the link between a Hezbollah and an Iran.”

Growth of US vulnerability. Cyberspace has become a potentially great US military Achilles heel. The Air Force has never been so heavily dependent on cyberspace as a medium supporting critical systems.

“Military activities in all domains—air, land, sea, space—and our way of life increasingly depend on our ability to operate in the cyber domain,” Kass noted.

It follows that the loss or compromise of these systems would bring catastrophe. American adversaries cannot confront the world’s most powerful military head on, so they look to exploit chinks in the US armor. Cyberspace contains many such chinks because the nation’s military power is more dependent than ever on systems based on the electromagnetic spectrum.

What’s Important

“The Air Force in particular has some very highly automated systems upon which it’s reliant,” said Arquilla. He noted, for example, the development of an air tasking order, or ATO. Today, it is virtually a fully automated system and is vulnerable to enemy disruption or destruction. “It’s not even clear that the Air Force could [produce] an air tasking order manually anymore,” said Arquilla, “and so the security of the information system over which it’s transmitted and through which it is undertaken is extremely important.”

He went on, “Whether you are slowing down a bombing campaign, or slowing down the movement of troops to some theater, we’re talking about a … great difference.”

Wynne said the American “information mosaic”—the sum of data from all sensors that can be “collected and downloaded and cross-loaded for use by all in the fight”—is the key target of Air Force adversaries and a key cyber vulnerability.

“All the information flow moves in the cyber domain, meaning the entire flow can be vulnerable to a cyberspace attack,” Wynne said in a Nov. 2 speech in suburban Washington.

In cyberspace, the United States is lagging behind competitors, according to Kass. She declined to specify states or nonstate actors outpacing the United States. However, US enemies or competitors are known to be working hard to build their capabilities.

The list of national and subnational cyber threats is long. Arquilla reported that he hasn’t seen “anything quite like a cyber arms race going on just yet,” but “leading countries are all involved” in cyberspace operations.

The list of potential cyberspace threats starts with al Qaeda. The militant group “has focused extensively on developing a capacity for cyberspace-based operations,” said Arquilla.

Al Qaeda has focused heavily on using the Internet for recruiting, fund-raising, and propaganda-spreading. However, it also has trained its operatives “in computer network attack techniques,” Arquilla said.

As for nations, China and Russia generally are viewed as the greatest potential threats.

“China is one of the more active countries in thinking through the whole business of cyberspace-based operations,” said Arquilla. Beijing’s cyberspace thrust comports with the Chinese military’s well-documented practice of using asymmetric tactics against its superpower military rival.

Evidence of Chinese interest comes in the form of statements of Chinese officials, as well as past incidents.

Example: Beginning in 2003 and for several years thereafter, a cyber espionage ring code-named “Titan Rain” stole information from various US government computers, including DOD networks. In their origin and style, the attacks “seemed to suggest a Chinese connection,” Arquilla said.

Writing in a People’s Liberation Army publication, a Chinese general in 1996 touted Chinese plans to move into cyberspace as a combat arena. The CIA quoted the general as saying, “We can make the enemy’s command centers not work by changing their data system. We can cause the enemy’s headquarters to make incorrect judgments by sending disinformation.”

And that was more than a decade ago.

Kass said Chinese officials have published “strategic documents” outlining “unrestricted warfare” against the American information constellation. They “understand how reliant the United States is on the ability to conduct global command and control,” she added.

Moreover, said Arquilla, “the Russians are quite good” at cyber work. Indeed, it is only too apparent that Moscow takes cyberspace operations very seriously. At least one Russian official has said that a cyber-attack on Russia’s critical transportation or power infrastructure would warrant a nuclear response.

“This is probably the only warfighting domain in which we have peer competitors,” said Keys of ACC. “We have to stay ahead of them.”

USAF is not exactly a fledgling. It electronically jabbed Serbian air defense computer networks during the 78-day NATO bombing campaign over Kosovo in 1999. Later, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, said, “We only used our capability to a very limited degree,” but with apparent success.

USAF’s dive into the cyber world brings not only gains but also certain risks.

For civil libertarians, cyber operations cause jitters, which Kass insisted are overblown and are, in any event, offset by the benefits of US power in this area.

Early Cases

Keys, for his part, noted the potential for confusion in defining which service entity does what. “There’s more to cyber than just computers. I mean, it’s the ether that all this stuff flies through, so people start talking about electronic warfare. Well, is electronic warfare cyber warfare or not? I don’t know.”

Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, head of US Strategic Command and thus the nation’s top cyber warfighter, sees dangers in spreading such expertise.

“When you train a person to be good in this environment it’s not unlike the Manhattan Project,” said Cartwright. “You’ve given them the keys to the kingdom.”

The Air Force doesn’t have much choice in the matter, though. Cyberspace, nebulous as it is, has moved front and center in the military’s order of battle. “Without cyber dominance,” said Wynne, “operations in all of the other domains are in fact placed at risk.”

Like Kass, Arquilla sees parallels with the 20th century development of military aviation. In a long 2003 interview with the PBS news program “Frontline,” he put it this way:

“The real meaning of cyber warfare is on the battlefield. Much as aircraft … transformed 20th century warfare, I think cyber-attacks will transform 21st century warfare. Militaries which are highly dependent on secure information systems will be absolutely crippled [if they are destroyed], just as if they didn’t have aircraft above to protect them in the 20th century.”

Hampton Stephens is the former managing editor of Inside the Air Force and is now a freelance writer and editor of the online news site World Politics Watch in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Toward a New Laser Era,” appeared in the June 2006 issue.