As the U.S. Air Force looks to industry for new capabilities in the cyberspace arena, its approach may be far different than the way it acquires aircraft and space systems, according to senior service officials.
In order to be successful, cyberspace acquisition efforts must move much faster than those in the air and space worlds, the officials said during June 18 speeches at the Air Force Cyberspace Symposium 2 sponsored by the Air Force Association in Marlborough, Mass.
Mike Wynne, who spoke at the conference several days before stepping down from his post as Air Force secretary, compared the cyber arena to space. He noted that in both arenas the Pentagon historically has been able to operate virtually unchallenged, but now increasingly finds itself facing multiple threats.
Noting the value of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to and allied forces, Wynne said improved cyberspace security measures will be critical if the service is to be confident that it will continue to have access to that information. That means, for example, knowing that systems have not been tampered with.
Wynne said the service also needs tools to monitor potential threats, characterize them, and further analyze the nature and cause of disruptions to its computer networks.
Doing so will require a different intelligence and surveillance strategy than what commonly is used to watch for enemy attacks on the battlefield, according to Lt. Gen. Ted Bowlds, commander of the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force in Massachusetts. While the military might watch for a possible invasion by observing troops massing near a border, cyber attacks can be launched by as a single person behind a keyboard, he said during a speech at the conference.
Cyberspace is an area where the Air Force cannot afford the lengthy development cycles associated with air and space systems, Wynne said. In many cases, cyberspace tools that were considered state of the art just 18 months ago are obsolete today, he said. As the Air Force develops other systems like fighter aircraft, it may hope to stay as much as 40 years ahead of its adversaries, Bowlds said. However, a different approach is needed in cyberspace, where the best the service might be able to hope for is staying six months ahead, he said.
While the Air Force will need to move quickly to react to advances in cyberspace technology and enemies that will rapidly adapt, it cannot forgo rigorous acquisition discipline, Bowlds said.
The relatively low cost of cyberspace capabilities in comparison to many other military systems offers an opportunity for the Air Force to get considerable bang for its buck, but also means that similar capabilities will be particularly attractive to enemies who lack budgets on par with the Pentagon, like terrorists and insurgents, Bowlds said.
In some cases, the Air Force may be looking for software code that is written for an operation on short notice, and then not used again, Bowlds said. Cyber work also will call for capabilities that play a more regular role in Air Force operations, Bowlds said. However, the Air Force is not interested in complex, proprietary systems that cannot easily interface with other cyberspace systems, he said.
As the Air Force looks for defensive measures, it should avoid an over-reliance on building firewalls and similar measures that stop intrusion, Bowlds said. Some degree of infiltration must be accepted, and the service needs to develop measures to cope, he said.
“It’s not about building a wall and keeping them out – they’re in there,” Bowlds said.
Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in , pointed to the Titanic and the French Maginot Line as examples where the creators invested a significant amount of time and money building something they thought to be invincible.
Those two cases are among the evidence that the Air Force cannot hope to prevent attacks altogether, and needs to develop measures that can respond by stabilizing the service’s systems and recover from an attack, similar to the way that a boxer can absorb a series of blows and rise from the canvas to continue the fight, Bedke said during a speech at the conference.