Potential enemies of the United States are sharpening their abilities to attack computer networks
and could launch attacks in the future that are more potent than kinetic weapons, according to the U.S. Air Force’s outgoing top official.
Despite the threats that its systems face, the Air Force cannot afford to stop using unclassified computer systems that are connected to the Internet, Air Force Secretary
Mike Wynne said in a June 18 speech at the Air Force Cyberspace Symposium 2 in Marlborough, Mass.
Wynne retired from his post
June 20 under
from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said he was forcing Wynne and Gen. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force Chief of Staff, to leave because of their poor response to problems with
the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons in recent years.
noted in his speech that one of his first actions as Air Force secretary in 2005 was to amend the service’s mission statement to include cyberspace as one of the domains in which it operates alongside air and space.
Enemies could use cyber attacks against U.S. forces on the battlefield to cause problems ranging from tampering with U.S. sensors to causing guided munitions to veer off target, according to Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force and U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike Integration.
Larger scale assaults could cause damage
to communications networks similar to the effect
Hurricane Katrina had when it destroyed
power systems and cellular towers along the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. The destruction of that infrastructure impaired
the ability of
rescue teams to coordinate their response, Elder said in a June 18 speech at the conference. Elder also cited
the crashing of cellular communications networks in New York
due to the intense traffic following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as another example of symptoms that could be similar to that of a cyber attack.
Wynne credited the cyber attacks that the United States has absorbed thus far from places like China as a wakeup call for the Air Force to shore up its own networks.
The Air Force must do more to improve its network security capabilities, but it cannot afford to rely exclusively on the Pentagon’s Secret Internet Protocol Network, Wynne said. Wynne noted that when he began his military career in the Air Force
as a lieutenant, he had looked forward to receiving a higher security clearance, but learned little new upon receiving it as the most critical information was already in the public domain.
If the service were to disconnect from the public Internet in order to avoid hackers, it would shut itself off from valuable intelligence, Wynne said.
While enemies can use cyber attacks to disrupt U.S. operations, the Air Force can take advantage of these capabilities in an offensive manner as well, according to Col. Ward Heinke, commander of the Air Force Network Operations Center.
Cyber attacks could allow the Air Force to continue the strides in efficiency in striking targets that it has made over the past century, Heinke said during a June 18 panel discussion at the conference. Many bombers were often needed during World War II
to destroy a single target, and advances in precision guided munitions have helped to enable the service to strike multiple targets with a single sortee today, he said. However, a cyber attack could enable a single airman behind a computer to strike hundreds or thousands of targets while minimizing collateral damage, Heinke said.
Wynne noted that the Air Force created an interim Cyber Command in September 2007 at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, but described the service’s capabilities in this area as second grade level, and compared them to airpower in the first half of the 20th century, and space in the latter portion of the century.
In an interview with reporters in his office June 20, his final day as
secretary, Wynne used a different analogy. “We’re right where the pilots in those biplanes were – tired of having to fly so close to shoot their pistols and they set a machine gun up on the fuselage and shot the propellers off.”
Without being specific, Wynne noted that there has been opposition to the Air Force’s decision to elevate cyberspace to the same level as air, sea and space as potential battlefields and the creation of an Air Force command to deal with those issues, but he defended the decision.
“The debate really is over permission slips and what we have contended is hey, we’re an air force, that’s in our name but the Navy has an air arm, the Marines have an air arm, the Army has an air arm. So we think this is a shared domain. I think it should be open to all comers,” Wynne said.
He also acknowledged that some in the intelligence business, for example, might want to keep an enemy network open for intelligence reasons at the same time a combatant commander’s instinct would be to shut down everything he viewed as an immediate threat. “When warfighters get into cyber, there’s sort a fear that we’ll shut down all sources … the contention is actually more about should this be a contested warfighting domain.”
Wynne said those decisions should be up to the combatant commander at U.S. Strategic Command. “He’s the one who decides when the intelligence usage is not as useful as the command and control interference. So he’s the one who’s going to shape the takedown – much as they shaped the takedown when we shot the antennas off the Baghdad hotel. Maybe that was a useless source of information for somebody, but the combatant commander decided those antennas had to go. So those antennas went.”
Wynne said much of the cyberspace job can be handled by the National Guard. He noted that a Guard unit in Vermont has taken that responsibility and by using the Internet
already has trained more than 2,000 Air Force personnel in cyberspace issues.
Wynne was referring to the 229th Information Operations Squadron, which was activated Oct. 13 and is based at the National Guard Armory on the campus of Norwich University in Northfield, V
Lon Rains contributed to this article from Washington.