Finally, We're Jumping Into Cyberwar Trenches

Monday, 04 May 2009 12:51 PM

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“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” — Benjamin Franklin

We are filling in one of the final gaps between cavemen warriors and cyber combatants of the future. All I can say is it’s about time.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly intends to nominate Gen. Keith Alexander, who directs the National Security Agency, to head a new Pentagon Cyber Command. The command is to be tasked with coordinating computer-network defense and direct U.S. cyberattack operations.

I was grousing about the cyber threat (and specifically the Chinese) a decade ago. I also have predicted that that the new-generation “special” warriors would not be products of Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Quantico, and Coronado but rather would come from Silicon Valley garages, colleges, and universities.

We always will need a pointy end of the spear and hard chargers to do dangerous stuff in remote venues. However, in the future, preparing the battlefield will be “different.”

  • Ancient warriors used archers.

  • Roman legions used siege engines and fire.

  • Cannons and mortars replaced arrows.

  • WWI saw poison gas.

  • Adjusted fire of artillery morphed into laser designated weapons and GPS “smart bombs.”

    As our military’s dependence on computers and satellites increases, so does our vulnerability to cyberattacks to command and control through assaults on computer networks and satellites.

    Last year I wrote, “An assault on the American satellite system in a barrage of anti-satellite weapons would immediately and significantly traumatize American troops, planes, and ships around the world. The global economy would probably catastrophically collapse, along with air travel and communications.”

    The Chicoms have led the way in sophisticated cyber warfare. Although the United States has kinda/sorta developed assets in the Air Force and through the National Security Agency, we have lacked the structure and organization to combat cyber warfare as the real threat it is — or, (hopefully) the Pentagon was just not telling us what it was doing. Time Magazine did an excellent piece in 1995 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,983318,00.html ).

    Despite the general lack of headlines, some incremental baby steps have occurred.

    In March 2004, the Pentagon announced the formation of an information operations team: the Network Attack Support Staff. The purpose was “to streamline the military’s cyberattack capabilities.” The aim was to create an “interface between the combatant commanders and the intelligence community.”

    Now, in the wake of rising government concerns about attacks on U.S. networks (albeit it late in coming), as well as the emergence of several books on cyberattacks, we finally are doing something substantive. The new command will run military cyber security operations and provide support to civil authorities, according to a memo The Wall Street Journal reviewed.

    About eight years ago, Bill Gertz told me during an interview with The Washington Times (http://www.geoffmetcalf.com/qa/19645.html ) about a piece he read in the Liberation Army Daily, “which is the official newspaper of the People's Liberation Army. And it said they are making great strides toward developing a separate service that will engage in information warfare. That is using computer systems to attack other computer systems primarily against their main enemy. That is us.”

    It is a good thing that Gates finally is establishing a long-needed military command to deal with cyberwarfare. However, the new venture faces immediate challenges. The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with securing the government's nonmilitary networks. Potential turf battles between dueling government monsters could create more problems than it solves . . . and problem solving must be job one.

    The new command is needed because "our increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national security."

    No, that is not from a 1999 Geoff Metcalf column but from the latest government memo.

    Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates is "planning to make changes to our command structure to better reflect the increasing threat posed by cyber warfare."

    Gen. Alexander tried to chill concerns about the security agency's role in domestic cyber security during a recent speech in San Francisco.

    "We need to dispel the rumors," he said, stressing that agency didn't want to run all the government's cyber security operations. The agency has "tremendous technical capabilities," he said.

    Beyond the inevitable dangers of not knowing what we don’t know, integrating cyber threat assets is a challenge that must be cured sooner rather than later. Government power we are told is a direct function of budgets. Turf battles over Excel spreadsheet line items cannot be allowed to undermine the very real imperative of staffing assets.

    The Chicoms don’t have those challenges and they have a big head start . . .

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