The general in charge of the U.S. Air Force’s cyberwarfare effort says plans for his unit have been scaled back because staff who would have been used to set up a cybercommand will be allocated to the service’s new nuclear command instead.
Air Force Cyber Command was to be established as a major command alongside the service’s space, air-combat and other commands — last month. However, those plans were suspended over the summer after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the Air Force’s civilian and military leaders because of lapses in the security of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Last month, plans for a full-fledged major command for cyberwarfare were scrapped.
The Pentagon’s Armed Forces News Service reported on Oct. 8 that a gathering of the service’s leadership in Colorado was told that cyberoperations would be a numbered Air Force component — one step down from a major command in organizational terms.
Maj. Gen. William T. Lord, commander of Air Force Cyber Command, told United Press International that the change helped solve the organizational challenge of creating a new nuclear command “with the manpower that was going to be allocated to make cybercommand a major air command allocated instead to fix the more pressing problem… [of] making sure that people are comfortable that we in fact have our eye on the ball of our nuclear enterprise.”
Gen. Lord said the headquarters billets that were going to be allocated to cybercommand were used to create the Air Force’s Global Strike Command.
The new command brings together all the Air Force’s nuclear weaponry under one leadership and is one of a series of measures taken to restore confidence in the service’s stewardship of the nation’s atomic arsenal after some high-profile missteps.
An internal report released in early June was sharply critical of the Air Force, focusing on a mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads. In August 2007, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear warheads and flown across the nation without anyone realizing it.
As a numbered Air Force component, the cybercommand will be a force provider to the U.S. military, organized within Air Force Space Command - much as a bomber wing forms part of Air Combat Command, which provides air power to the joint combatant commands.
Gen. Lord said the new arrangement is “a good marriage between the expertise capabilities inside Air Force Space Command and the capabilities we’re tying to bring on in the cyberbusiness.”
Space Command is already the repository of the technical and engineering expertise required, he said. He dismissed suggestions that the Air Force was rebuffed after an overreaching power grab — which is how some critics of the service saw its plans for a major cybercommand.
Amit Yoran, former National Cyber Security Division director within the Department of Homeland Security, said that whatever the reason behind the decision, it showed Air Force leaders were “still being open-minded to evolve their strategy based on feedback and input they got” from the civilian leadership and cybersecurity experts.
Dave Aland, a senior analyst for El Segundo, Calif.-based Wyle Laboratories Inc., which supports the Department of Defense and other clients, declined to comment directly about the Air Force decision but said that, in general, the military needs to address the issue of cyberwarfare “considerably more collaboratively.”
He said that applies to interservice cooperation as well as relations between the military and other federal entities and allies.
“The spillover is very broad-based,” he said of potential collateral damage from cyberattacks.
Mr. Aland said the nature of cyberconflict made it practically impossible to distinguish warfare from crime or terrorism.
“The only real difference is in the target set, which bleeds over dramatically from one [category] to the next - and the intent of the actors,” which is all but impossible to determine, he said.
“It becomes impractical to work out who the actors are… and apply the relevant legal framework,” Mr. Aland said, adding that there needs to be a “wholly new approach.”
Gen. Lord agreed.
“When does a cyberattack on a bank change from being just a cybercriminal to being someone attacking the nation’s banking system?” he asked.
“Some would argue it doesn’t matter,” he said, “and it may not matter if you are inside the bank, but it matters if you are following U.S. law in determining what action, what activity, you can take against — if you can figure out who the attacker is.”
He also said the laws that govern traditional conflicts apply to U.S. cyberwarfare efforts, much the same way targeting decisions for U.S. air power are bound by the restrictions of the Geneva Conventions.
“You still have to look at reciprocity, at collateral damage,” he said. “We do consider cyber as a war-fighting domain, but one in which places like the Internet exist, and you have to de-conflict all that.”
Those decisions lie with the combatant commanders and, specifically, with the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which is also setting the requirements for the Air Force’s cyberforces.
Gen. Lord said the top-priority requirement right now is training, “all the way down from the Air [Force] Institute of Technology to basic military training.” He likened the basic training to “equipping airmen with cybersidearms… officers, enlisted and maybe even contractors, so that they know their responsibilities for behavior on the network today.”
Gen. Lord said the numbered Air Force cybercomponent will also support U.S. Northern Command, which controls all U.S. military forces within the continental United States, whether it is needed in response to a cyberattack or as a result of a more conventional disaster, such as a hurricane.
“It’s not just the attack-and-defense piece; there’s consequence management, too,” he said, “where military personnel and equipment could get broken networks up and running for the civilian population.”