HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass: The Air Force’s top cyber official told a mostly industry-based audience here May 8 that the cyber arena is filled with new business opportunities, and some very hard challenges.
“In an Air Force that is a lot of times focused on kinetic activity — read that as F-16 (Fighting Falcons) and 2,000-pound bombs — not at warfare conducted in a different manner at the speed of light, cyber operations require some new thinking,” said Maj. Gen. William Lord, commander of Air Force Cyber Command (Provisional).
Speaking to about 125 people at the Hanscom Representatives Association meeting here, he noted that it’s very difficult to find out who the attackers are or even what their attributes and intentions are. He also noted that existing laws and policies often hamper the ability of U.S. cyber experts to find the answers or to launch an attack of their own.
“It’s easier for us to get approval to do a kinetic strike with a 2,000-pound bomb than it is for us to do a non-kinetic cyber activity,” General Lord said.
Yet while law, policy and culture all present potential barriers to effectively controlling cyberspace, technology needs are just as vital.
“Our trouble today is that we’re always shooting behind the rabbit,” General Lord said. “We wait for the latest exploit, and then when something bad happens, we figure out how to fix it.”
Air Force cyber officials have rapidly accelerated their response time to cyber intrusions and attacks, he said, but that’s not good enough. He wants cyber defense to work proactively, to seek out threats and to detect and defeat them instantaneously. He challenged the mostly industry-based audience to bring the tools needed to accomplish this and charged government science and technology specialists to dwell on the problem, too.
The general also focused on offensive capabilities of cyber.
“I think that cyber can be the next strategic force of the future,” he said. “I’m not saying do away with all the F-16s and all the 2,000-pound bombs. We love our smoking holes; we love seeing wreckage and fires … because that’s the proof that the target’s been deactivated.”
Yet what if a cyber action achieved the same effect? And if it can be done, will the warfighter, in the absence of visual evidence, trust that it has?
“How do I convince that guy in the green bag that a cyber weapon just took care of that threat, even though it looks the same as it did before, when I looked at the (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance)?” he asked.
The answer is to “operationalize” cyber and to integrate it into the warfighting arsenal, he said, so that everyone understands how it can be used and what it can do.
General Lord talked about the alignment of cyber under Air Force Space Command and noted that neither he nor Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of Space Command, wants cyber to be seen, as space once was, as ‘different.’ He spoke about Space Command’s 100-day plan for cyber, which attempts, among other things, to sort-out short-term to-dos from longer-range challenges.
He said that Air Force leaders truly understand the significance of all of this and want to move forward rapidly with “no more interim steps.”
General Lord also talked about the role of the Electronic Systems Center, reiterating that its 753rd Electronic Systems Group is “the Air Force’s cyber front porch.” As such, the group and center will in large part determine what systems and capabilities should roll into the cyber portfolio.
And the general ended with a final plea to the industry members in the audience.
“We can’t do this without you,” he said.