• Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris, USAF, vice commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia speaks at the inaugural TechNet Air 2016 symposium in San Antonio.
     Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris, USAF, vice commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia speaks at the inaugural TechNet Air 2016 symposium in San Antonio.

Air Force 'Already at War in Cyber' General Tells Symposium

March 22, 2016
By Sandra Jontz
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While technology helped propel the U.S. military to outshine just about every adversary, failing to safeguard key developments just might lead to its downfall, warned Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris, USAF, vice commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

At the vertex of much of technological advances has been emergence of cyberspace across warfighting domains.

“Cyber is growing at a fast rate and the Air Force and the [Defense Department], we have limited resources which are far outstripped by the demand that we are asked,” Gen. Harris said Tuesday at AFCEA International’s inaugural TechNet Air 2016 symposium, taking place March 22-24 in San Antonio.

The Air Force, as in all services, heavily relies on cyberspace to accomplish core functions, particularly within the combat Air Force, Gen. Harris said. To showcase his point, he presented a short unclassified video depicting the January destruction of a bank controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Mosul—a bomb hits the compound, distributing an explosion of cash.

“What I love about that video … is it's the only time the military made money go up in smoke and we weren’t yelled at by Congress,” Gen. Harris jested during his presentation. “In all seriousness, that video is especially pertinent because it highlights the importance of cyber in today’s fight. Every step in the kill chain for that attack, from the intelligence needed to prepare the strike, the [command and control] of the strike package and the operations of the strike itself, all depended on cyber.” 

Through the use of satellites, ground stations and a number of circuits, the Air Force projects power from all parts of the world, and cyber is instrumental for many of the service’s aircraft to merely operate, he said. “The lengths our operators use to fly and operate remotely is a minor miracle.”

Cyber resources’ availability and integrity become a requisite requirement to enable mission dominance, he shared. “At a minimum, we need to protect those areas if the Air Force and the U.S. government are going to be able to project air power against a near-peer adversary,” Gen. Harris said.

Cyber operations go hand-in-hand with electronic warfare, and the Air Force has a history of exploiting and defending against electronic attacks in the electromagnetic spectrum. “EW is nothing new to the flyers, but the impact of other potential areas that can affect our platforms is just starting to reach the tactical level of flying. We need to actively defend ourselves against other areas as well.”

Potential threats abound, from platforms and hardware to the software making it all work, he offered. “How do we ensure that the code being developed isn’t being tampered with before it’s even finalized?”

Anything connected to an aircraft can potentially provide a path adversaries can exploit, he said. 

“How do we prioritize between defense and offense when we’re in cyber? That’s the big question we’re struggling with now,” he continued. 

The answer is mission assurance—a change in mindset and the acknowledgement that the cyberspace domain is inside all warfighting and mission systems.

Cyber is increasingly becoming a contested domain, and “to be honest, I would say we are already at war in cyber,” Gen. Harris said.

The Air Force needs to restructure its active duty work force, such as revamping communications squadrons and cyberwarriors, and develop a much greater reliance on industry to take over some of the IT and defense aspect of network operations. “Today, we have a manpower shortfall defending our core missions in cyber. About 85 percent defend the Air Force network. [A reorganization] will hopefully move some of that manpower of defending systems closer to the weapons systems. How we will get there is a challenge.”

“Will the cyber organization be a wing, or a flight or a squadron? These are the problems that the Air Force is working through now, and time will tell.”

In addition to depending on industry for some service, the Air Force will rely more heavily on the National Guard and reserves, Gen. Harris said. “Imagine hiring a computer executive by day and a cyberwarrior by night and weekend.”

By the same token, industry must afford greater access to active duty counterparts and develop interoperable standards, Harris said.

“There will come a day when this great nation will have a fight on its hands with a truly existential threat. At that time, our cyber operators will need to have access and knowledge to the systems they are working on and training that will provide our airmen the ability to fight. But before they can train, they need to be ensured they have the appropriate access to the systems that they’re working on,” he explained. “I know that might be controversial … but the business model right now is the Air Force relying on contractors for day-to-day operations of certain subcomponents, yet when the weapons fly and we need to forward deploy some of these aircraft, our trained airmen will need to go forward and it all starts with their access."

“We are a technology-dependent force. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, that is both a key to our dominance and a potentially devastating vulnerability,” Harris said.

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