Command Shapes Tomorrow's Cyberwarriors

February 2008
By Henry S. Kenyon

The mission of the U.S. Air Force Cyberspace Command (AFCYBER) is to use the electromagnetic spectrum, computer and communications networks for defensive and nonkinetic offensive operations. Specialized aircraft, such as this EC-130H Compass Call, support AFCYBER’s mission by conducting electronic warfare missions including jamming enemy communications to degrade the transfer of vital command and control information.
Enterprise to focus network combat capabilities, training and doctrine.

The U.S. Air Force is laying both physical and virtual groundwork for its newest warfighting organization, the Air Force Cyberspace Command. This unique group will have a physical headquarters, but it will be virtual in nature, with most of its personnel distributed across several bases.

With its initial operational capability slated for this October, the command will leverage the Air Force’s capabilities in areas such as command and control, electronic warfare, network warfare and information assurance and will apply these functions to cyberspace operations. Full operational capability is expected next year. 

Planning the organization’s infrastructure will include a framework covering both physical systems, such as computer networks, and human aspects, which will require new approaches to training and doctrine.

The person responsible for planning this infrastructure is Maj. Gen. William T. Lord, USAF, the Air Force Cyberspace Command’s (AFCYBER’s) provisional commander. His mission is to organize, train and equip the command; to create a budget; to determine basing criteria for the final headquarters location; and to meet the command’s launch deadline. A two- or three-star general will then be selected to head the organization.

AFCYBER is part of the U.S. 8th Air Force under the command of Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., USAF. Gen. Elder is responsible for overseeing AFCYBER’s warfighting and operational functions (SIGNAL Magazine, August 2007) and managing the Air Force’s networks as Air Force Network Operations commander. These operational and infrastructure activities eventually will merge when the command achieves its initial operational capability, Gen. Lord explains. 

The key challenge for AFCYBER will be to create a mostly virtual organization with a limited brick and mortar footprint. Gen. Lord says that creation of this command presents an opportunity to establish a lean organization with components connected through cyberspace. This arrangement will distribute the command’s elements at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia; Scott Air Force Base, Illinois; and Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. The general’s support staff consists of 160 personnel distributed across these three bases.

Besides organizing personnel and determining the command’s structure, Gen. Lord must establish a training program and a career development plan. He also will have to address additional advanced training requirements and determine the command’s equipment infrastructure.

Developing basing criteria is important for the command because it may not be headquartered at Barksdale. The general notes that more than 24 congressional delegations have expressed interest in hosting AFCYBER’s headquarters. Although the organization is distributed, its command and control nexus will house some 400 to 500 personnel. He expects the final basing decision to be set by the end of this month to permit the personnel assignment process to begin.

The Air Force has been involved in cyberspace operations for many years, but only recently has it formally added cyberspace to its mission statement. Gen. Lord says that the service uses cyberspace as a warfighting domain, to both secure and protect its assets and to conduct offensive operations. The Air Force defines the domain to include the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Technical areas for cyberspace operations include electronic warfare and directed energy, electronic support and combat, computer network defense and network operations. 

According to the general, Air Force planners believe that in the next major conflict, the first signs of an attack will be in cyberspace. “We don’t think it will be the traditional combat operations that we see today. The first indication is not going to be the bad guy’s mechanized divisions landing at Coronado Beach,” Gen. Lord says.

Because of the diverse nature of cyberspace threats, the general explains, the Air Force must match its cyber policies closely with the U.S. Defense Department’s and work in partnership with other government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “We need to be lashed quite tightly to them [the DHS], because there are statutory things that prevent us from doing things inside the United States,” he shares.

Beyond forming partnerships with other Defense Department and government agencies, AFCYBER also must cultivate its most important resource—its people. But developing the training doctrine for the personnel who will fight these future conflicts is a challenge. Gen. Lord says that the command is examining the entire training regime for its cyber and electronic warfare personnel. It is working with the National Security Agency, which certifies cyber warfare training. He envisions the career requirements in AFCYBER as combining many skills such as electronic warfare, intelligence and satellite communications. The command will be a nexus for training and certifying these career skills. 

At its most granular level, the general says that cyber warfare is the ability to prevent an enemy from conducting its own command and control, by either damaging networks or manipulating data to provide false information. But developing this type of information-based warfare requires specialists skilled in areas such as behavioral science and cultural linguistics—disciplines that are not usually viewed as warfighting skills.

Because cyber warfare is interwoven with other missions, such as information operations, extensive training and career slots will be required. “Today, the way we would get those people is by morphing them out of existing career fields. But the basis for how we create the career field is that we’re really taking a half-dozen skills and putting them in one person,” Gen. Lord explains.

This complex and interrelated skill set may make it necessary for the Air Force to target a different type of person to recruit. “Today’s ‘hactivist’ may be tomorrow’s airman. We haven’t figured out how to do that culturally yet. But those are potentially some of the skills that we need,” he says.

Another important AFCYBER’s staffing requirement is treating cyberspace with the same rigor as is applied to other combat domains. The general explains that this involves developing certifications, qualifications, training and exercises to produce fully certified cyber warriors.

The Air Force also must accustom itself to the rapid changes common to the information technology and software industries. An important part of this is determining whether the existing acquisition structure is capable of handling rapidly changing requirements. Gen. Lord notes that the Air Force is used to developing a new aircraft every 20 years, but this approach is untenable in a field where new products appear every 18 months. “We may have to figure out different ways to develop the defensive and offensive weapons to mitigate an enemy’s attacks,” he maintains.

The low cost of waging cyberwar is also a concern among Air Force planners. Although the United States may not currently have peer competitors in traditional armed forces, Gen. Lord argues, the nation does have peer competitors in cyberspace. “The price of admission when an enemy has to build the equivalent of an F-22 is billions of dollars. In the cyber warfighting domain, it’s very cheap. You have the ability on your desktop computer to be an asymmetric threat to the United States,” he declares.

The general cites the example of Estonia, which recently weathered a major attack on its government networks. He says that unidentified hackers hijacked more than a million computers from 75 different nations for use in this assault. He notes that the Estonians conducted a tiered cyber defense, but they were ultimately forced to disconnect themselves briefly from the Internet—a victory for the attackers. “These are potentially weapons of mass disruption versus mass destruction, and as nation-states we have to figure out whether we’re really going to use these things or if they will perform some deterrent effect,” Gen. Lord relates.

Command and control for a virtual military organization will be difficult, but the process can benefit from a heavy application of collaborative tools, such as those now used in air operations centers. These tools will allow AFCYBER to operate as a major command with a distributed staff.

The newness of the command also allows planners to examine a variety of new concepts. One example is “hoteling,” which allows personnel to work anywhere without the need for a permanent office. Airmen can plug their computers in at any Air Force facility, and the system will identify the individual automatically based on his or her Common Access Card credential. Gen. Lord explains that the system would track people wherever they are on facilities such as Barksdale Air Force Base.

AFCYBER also is examining the use of location awareness systems using global positioning system coordinates to determine a user’s location and work schedule. Other concepts include docking stations for laptop and notebook computers and secure Blackberry personal digital assistants. “What has driven this whole business is speed. We’ve gone from the pony express to train mail, to Federal Express to e-mail,” he says.

These rapid changes not only affect how the Air Force fights wars, but also how commands such as AFCYBER conduct their daily business. Because of the rapid nature of threats in cyberspace, the Air Force must respond to worms and other types of cyberattacks almost instantaneously. Gen. Lord notes that the Air Force cannot hope to respond by developing a software patch and distributing it across the entire organization in several days because an enemy can take control of an entire network within two or three minutes. “You need the ability to be very agile,” he emphasizes.

This agility will require establishing rules of engagement for defensive and for counter-cyber operations. “You’ll have to fight in the network while an adversary is potentially in it,” Gen. Lord explains.

Web Resources
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