Georgia Under Cyber Assault, but U.S. Air Force Considers Delaying Cyber Command

With the breakout of hostilities in Georgia and rumors of Russia's use of cyber warfare in the conflict, an Air Force program to defend and attack government IT systems hits a snag. Scheduled to become operational within two months, the Air Force delays the implementation of its Cyber Command system amid rumors of inter-service rivalries between Navy's Network Warfare Command and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center and DARPA's proposed virtual cyber warfare simulator.

U.S. Air Force officials are denying reports that it plans to suspend the operations of its Cyber Command program that aims to specialize in establishing, controlling and fighting in the cyberspace domain. Instead, the Air Force claims, it is only considering delaying the high-tech program.

The Air Force provisionally created the program last year with a mission statement that declared its Cyber Command would "secure our nation by employing world-class cyberspace capabilities to control cyberspace, create integrated global effects and deliver sovereign options." The command was scheduled to become operational within the next two months.

The program suspension rumors began in an Aug. 12 story by NextGov, which quoted "knowledgeable" sources and an e-mail that stated, "Transfers of manpower and resources, including activation and reassignment of units, shall be halted." NextGov said establishment of the Cyber Command would be delayed until new senior Air Force leaders have time to make a final decision on the scope and mission of the command.

The Air Force Aug. 14 didn't deny the NextGov story but spun it differently.

"The Air Force remains committed to providing full-spectrum cyber capabilities to include global command and control, electronic warfare and network defense," the Air Force said in a statement. "The Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force have considered delaying currently planned actions on Air Force Cyber Command to allow ample time for a comprehensive assessment of all AFCYBER requirements and to synchronize the AFCYBER mission with other key Air Force initiatives."

Top command at the Air Force has been in turmoil since Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requested the resignations of Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Mosely and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynn in the aftermath of an Air Force bomber mistakenly carrying five nuclear warheads on a mission from Minot Air Force Base, in North Dakota, to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, the current site of Cyber Command.

New Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz was sworn into office Aug. 12. "The new Air Force leaders continue to make a fresh assessment of all our efforts to provide our nation and the joint force the full spectrum of air, space and cyberspace capabilities," the Air Force statement said.

Both the Army and the Navy have established similar programs. The Navy has its Network Warfare Command and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center for defending and attacking government IT systems. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has also proposed to develop a virtual network environment for cyber war simulation. But the Air Force's Cyber Command program has received a barrage of publicity on television, in Web video advertisements and in a series of presentations conducted by Maj. Gen. William Lord, head of the Air Force Cyber Command. Rumors have persisted of inter-service rivalry over who will head the cyber defense efforts.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said in April the U.S. government is working on the equivalent of the "Manhattan Project" to defend federal networks and national security interests from large-scale cyber-attacks. Speaking at an RSA conference in San Francisco, Chertoff painted a dismal picture the government's readiness for a determined attack on critical communication networks.

"A single individual, a small group or a nation state can exact damage and destruction similar to dropping a bomb or explosives," he warned.