Air Force Offers Clues on Cyber-Offense Capabilities

By Stew Magnuson
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — There was a time when mentioning the U.S. military's ability to conduct offensive operations in cyberspace in a public forum was taboo. Now, it at least gets mentioned in passing.
Lt. Gen. Michael Basla, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, rattled off the names of a few cyber-attack programs April 16 at the Cyber 1.2 conference, a one-day event that precedes the Space Symposium here.
The "deployable cyber-attack system" and the "network attack system" were two he acknowledged.
"We have made measurable progress in defensive and offensive capabilities," over the past year, Basla said.
This despite budget and personnel cuts that have trickled down to the Air Force's network enterprises, he said. The command had to absorb $1.2 billion in cuts in fiscal year 2012, which happened so quickly that it has had to backtrack to do the analysis to see if the ax fell on the right programs. The command expects to take another $2.3 billion hit over the 2013-2017 timeframe, he said.
The cuts threaten to prevent the command from carrying out its missions, he told reporters later. Sequestration, large automatic cuts that would be put in place at the end of this year if Congress does not reduce the federal budget, would definitely erode the command's ability, he said.
"I don't believe we can provide those fundamental level capabilities" if sequestration happens, he said. Nuclear command and control, as one of its primary missions, would be protected from budget reductions, but as the command goes down the priority list of what it must do, those capabilities would be threatened. He declined to say what those other missions would be.
Similarly, in cyber-operations, there is a list of about nine missions the command must carry out. Defending networks is at the top of that list. Offense is in the "bottom third," he said. The priority list directly translates to how the command spreads its funding, he said.
As far as being more open on offense, the Air Force has been a little more forthcoming since the Obama administration said, like regular warfare, the United States has the right to retaliate when attacked, he said. But that doesn't mean he can share details of these programs, he added.
Offensive operations are not only further down the list of priorities, they are also less mature. Rules of engagement in kinetic operations have been worked out, but they are less clear when launching attacks in cyberspace. Attribution, knowing who has launched an attack, is also problematic. It may be difficult to know the identity of the adversary, and therefore, whom to counter-attack, said Basla, who will soon take the job as the Air Force chief information officer.
Air Force officials were much more effusive about progress they have made in the defense realm. Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot, commander of the 24th Air Force wing, which is responsible for cyber-operations, said "proactive defense" is the new regime. The wing has established "hunter teams" that operate inside the network ferreting out intruders. The team members understand the network, are adept at moving within it, finding threats and neutralizing them.
The Air Force has also dramatically reduced the number of gateways where cyberspies can enter and has placed sensors there that can more easily spot attempts to penetrate the network. There were more than 100 gateways, there are now 16.
Read more reports from the Space Symposium on the National Defense Magazine blog,  April 16-19.

Topics: Cybersecurity, Space

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