U.S. Cyber Command – Air Force Stumbles
Great and powerful organizations can be handicapped by their own greatness. The shear magnificence, power and strength of the USAF also can be it’s own weakness at times. This is certainly true in the area of communications, air power and cyberspace.
The communications mission of the Air Force is highly interconnected with it’s core mission of delivering lethal precision air power, on time and on demand, anywhere in the world. Without sophisticated electronics, signal processing, information fusion, targeting, tracking, networking and more, the core mission of the Air Force would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Modern fighter jets are aerodynamically unstable and are completely dependent on high sophisticated electronics to fly.
The Air Force uses testosterone-driven phrases like “Total Air Dominance” to describe it’s war fighting mission. Air Force pilots are some of the most skillful and intelligent men and women in uniform. They work hard. They play hard. They fly amazing missions. The culture of the Air Force is unlike any organization I have ever known. They have everything (planes, fighter, pilots, world travel, global mission) but to them honor is above everything.
This amazing society of highly driven and very talented people, expected to perform critical missions at the drop of a hat, also leads to some divergent views regarding communications and the role of communications in the Air Force. These different views do not have a name, to my knowledge, so I will do my best to describe them.
One view is that the Air Force should be a dominate force in cyberspace. Fueled by the same magnificence of highly sophisticated flying fighter jets with amazing talent, there are good men and women who see the Air Force as having a role in cyberspace similar to the Air Force’s mission in air and space. This view tends to glorify cyberspace as an offensive weapon on the battlefield.
There is also a very different view. This view is that primary role of communications should be a support function to war fighters, but not necessarily a war fighting mission. Hence, the primary role of a cyber command, in this view, would be to provide mission-enabling cyber support to the war fighter.
Yet another view is that the defense of cyberspace is the most critical mission. The folks who advocate this view tend to be the most conservative and are often seen as too restrictive and overly governing on the communications infrastructure we call cyberspace.
My direct experience is that it is difficult to achieve the right balance in a large organizations, especially a war-fighting one. The three views described above are often in conflict with each other. This tension is indirectly responsible for the well publicized Air Force problems standing up their cyber command.
In August 2008 it was widely reported that Air Force Suspends Controversial Cyber Command. Wired reported as follows:
At a June conference , the command’s emerging leaders couldn’t agree on what exactly the new unit would do. Some said the command’s mission would be the “protection and defense of the Air Force’s command and control abilities.” Others argued that the “mission is to control cyberspace both for attacks and defense.” (The service even changed its mission statement to read, “As Airmen, it is our calling to dominate Air, Space, and Cyberspace.”) Some believed the Cyber Command would only be responsible for computer networks. Others thought it’d be responsible for every system that had anything to do with the electromagnetic spectrum — up to and including laser weapons.
You can easily see the tensions I described earlier in the quote referenced above. As reported, some people wanted to include high energy lasers under the mission of the emerging Air Force Cyber Command, (AFCYBER). In my opinion, this was a serious blunder.
The primary mission of the Air Force Cyber Command should be to provide the ultimate service to the war fighter that supports Air Force missions in air and space. This means that the Air Force should focus on building and maintaining the electronics communications networks, electromagnetic frequencies and all the supporting infrastructure we call cyberspace. However, an Air Force Cyber Command should not get into the mission of laser weapons, deep internal electronics in aircraft and other war fighting “nodes” on the network.
In addition, a cyber command must be cautious not to be overly focused on protecting the cyber infrastructure in such as way that it restricts innovation and creativity in it’s mission. In other words, the core mission should be to create, provide and maintain the ultimate communications network that facilitates the command, control and situational awareness (C2SA) of the entire range of objects in cyberspace.
One way to summarize this is “the command, control and total situational awareness of Air Force cyberspace.” C2SA is a huge mission. Focus the mission on the most difficult and complex problem, cyberspace situational awareness.
In prior posts I have described the current asymmetric situation in cyberspace. The explosion of cyberspace means that there is so much happening in our networks that we don’t understand, let alone control. Before you can control something completely, you must understand it completely, and this is the primary reason for situational awareness.
Today, we do not have strong situational knowledge in cyberspace. The situation is not much different than when mankind learned how to first launch a rocket, but did not have the knowledge in how to track a rocket, or how to identify, in flight, if a moving target was friend or foe. The same is true of packets of energy moving around the network today.
The mission of a cyber command should be to provide the ultimate command and control communications networks and to maintain total situational awareness of that cyberspace.
Editorial Note: By the way, situational awareness in cyberspace was the same original mission requirements that funded research that resulted in the phrase “complex event processing” being coined by a university professor. His work was originally DARPA funded to help advanced the state-of-the-art in the exact same area. There is a touch of irony that, just as some in AF have seemingly lost their way, so have vendors, analysts and reporters in understanding the relevance and importance of complex event processing.