New Air Force Mission: Cyberwar Belongs to Us

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REUTERS / Rick Wilking

Personnel at the Air Force Space Command Network Operations Security Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The Wall Street Journal noted last Friday about how the “Pentagon digs in on cyberwar front.” Bit misleading, as it’s really the Air Force that’s desperate to corner that market. You know the general story of Big War Blue (Navy, Air Force) feeling disrespected and underfunded across the “war on terror” era, and you’ve been treated ad nauseum to their budgetary counter-revolution in the form of the AirSea Battle Concept (whose combined Air-Navy motto should be: “It’s China’s turn — as well as ours!”).

Well, the Air Force has it far worse than the Navy in terms of existential fears, primarily due to the rapid rise and unbelievable dissemination of drones, where seemingly now every military unit has their own miniature air wing of what would have recently passed as toys. Amidst all that, the Air Force has clearly decided that its institutional salvation lies in convincing Congress and everybody else that – somehow – cyberspace is the natural domain of their service and their service alone.  It reminds one of the Navy feeling lost in the post-WWII drawdown and eventually finding its purpose in nuclear-missile-launching subs.

I have personally seen one hilariously over-the-top briefing by the Air Force’s top futurologists that paints a Tomorrowland where individual bad actors can destroy  the human race with a stroke of the keyboard and . . . if the U.S. government were smart, it’d basically dump the entire Defense Department budget into the Air Force’s coffer to allow it to monitor every byte of the WorldWideWeb 24/7 in a groovy, “trust us” Skynet sort of way. Without realizing it, I actually blurted out “bullshit” halfway through the presentation.  It was a bureaucratic jump-the-shark moment I will never forget.

Is there anything about cyberspace that particularly screams Air Force?  Not really.  If cyber warfare is going to be as all encompassing as it’s made out to be by its vigorous proponents, then it will disseminate throughout the services even more than the drone phenomenon has.

Having said that, it’s not hard to imagine a future where the Pentagon gives the “air” Force this sop as a way of encouraging its bureaucratic accommodation to its profound institutional downgrading due to drones going DoD-wide and essentially killing much of the USAF’s rationale as a unique war-fighting service (it was always weak, since the Army, Navy and Marines all kept their own air forces all along).

My point is saying all this: all of us who are interested in rational debates about U.S. national security (i.e., non-fear mongering and non-hyperbolic discussions) need to understand that virtually everything the Air Force tells us about cyber warfare will be reflect that service’s deep fears about its future, meaning it will be 90% sales-job and 10% reality.

Bottom line: if you want trustworthy analysis of the cyber threat, you will need to look outside the Pentagon.