Oct 29, 2007
A Work in Progress
Deep in the heart of cyberspace, something new called a Network Warfare and Ops Squadron fights battles 24/7 from a building in a nondescript office park here at Lackland Air Force Base.
At one end of the room, a crew monitors the cyberspace highways for the first signs of a hacker infiltration, spreading virus, or network-jamming wave of spam. A second crew rapidly investigates every problem and scrambles other crews to counter each incursion with an armory of specialized software. And all of it is under the watchful eyes of a pyramid of officers and officials that ascends through the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice and eventually into the Oval Office.
Every day, every hour, the squadron reacts to myriad trivial or significant attacks on some of the 650,000 computers that allow the Air Force to pay its personnel, manage day care centers, buy fuel, direct fighter-bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and launch nuclear-tipped missiles should the order ever come.
But this squadron is very different from the traditional units of leather-jacketed, death-defying pilots soaring through the wild blue yonder. These warriors are mostly office-dwelling private contractors whose skills and actions are bound by a complicated tangle of software and U.S. law rather than the laws of aerodynamics and the limits of physical courage. Yet, these "airmen" play an increasingly important role in the Air Force and the Defense Department, because warfare has spread into cyberspace, just as it long ago spread into air and space.
That's why the Air Force has tapped Maj. Gen. William Lord to assemble the Air Force Cyberspace Command by next October, whose job will be to recruit, equip, and train a new corps of cyber-warriors perpetually ready to protect military networks from whatever threats emerge.
The new command, Lord said, must also prepare for an offensive role -- to infiltrate or wreck enemy networks and to manipulate enemy leaders, should that action ever be ordered by the president. One goal, he said, is to give future presidents the ability to deter cyber-attacks. The ability to say, "We're not going to blow up your cities, we're going to melt your cities," or at least their electronic infrastructures, can help counter cyber-attacks, Lord said. "It doesn't have to be a weapon that ever gets used," he added.
The contractors don't live the regimented lives of military personnel, and they don't wear uniforms. But they all have to pass security and background checks. "We have to entrust them with the keys to all of the information on the networks," said Col. Mark Kross, who commands the 26th Network Operations Group, which includes Grant's squadron.
Lord's emerging Cyberspace Command is expected to include the Lackland operation and other classified programs as well as exotic aircraft, such as the U2 spy plane, EC-135 electronic-eavesdropping aircraft, EC-130E Commando Solo radio-broadcasting plane, and the EC-130H Compass Call radio-jamming aircraft.
Its headquarters will likely consist of several hundred staff overseeing perhaps 20,000 Air Force personnel. They will include software experts, lawyers, electronic-warfare and satellite specialists, and behavioral scientists, Lord said. "You have to reach out to a different kind of recruit," he noted.