Net Force

Nov. 1, 2007

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 there.

USAF’s 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’s motives and willingness to cooperate with other services and agencies. “They say, ‘The Air Force put this [cyberspace] in its mission statement; do you think you own it?’?” Elder notes.

To this, Elder has a ready response: “No, we don’t own it.” 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, “In the future it will be vital that we … dominate cyberspace.”

The basis for this belief can be discerned in “Victory in Cyberspace,” 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’s Air Force. She writes that, in the 1990s, cyber power advanced from being a limited, intelligence-based tool to an actual combat instrument.

Grant emphasizes that USAF relies on digitized information to power its advanced combat systems and magnify targeting, attack, and other capabilities. “In fact, the Air Force’s formation, over the past decade, of secure networks for expeditionary operations has become central to the way it fights,” 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 “cross-domain operations.” Simply put, execution of key tasks in “physical” air and space depends on “virtual” cyber functions.

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’ heel. The military—especially USAF—has entrusted more and more of its warfighting “valuables” to these networks, she says, in search of faster communications and data transfer. That has created vulnerabilities.

In Grant’s 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 “social” systems. If any fail, combat capability would suffer. Thus, writes Grant, “defending the ability to use established cyberspace systems that enhance the application of air and space power amounts to Job One” for airmen.

The Grant study suggests that, in a tactical sense, the bulk of USAF’s work focuses on defeating intruders via detection and deflection, before they can paralyze cyber systems, alter stored data, or steal classified information.

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, “We’re probably going to leave a little message that goes on the screen, that says, ‘This 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 success.

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—military, civilian, law enforcement, commercial—in 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’s network intelligence work in return for reciprocal NSA help in various areas.

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’s access to cyberspace. The Air Force itself must take the lead.

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.

“It’s time to get started,” Jumper told the Eaker Institute audience. “It’s time for us to organize ourselves and get started on this problem in a formal way…. This isn’t about ownership. This is about starting down a path,” at the end of which lies effective dominance of a critical new warfighting domain.