U.S. reveals plans to hit back at cyberthreats

The U.S. Air Force Cyber Command is just as interested in attack as defense, according to a senior general.
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor
The U.S. Air Force Cyber Command is developing capabilities to inflict denial of service, confidential data loss, data manipulation, and system integrity loss on its adversaries, and to combine these with physical attacks, according to a senior U.S. general.

Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER), a U.S. military unit set up in September 2007 to fight in cyberspace, is due to become fully operational in the autumn under the aegis of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. Lieutenant general Robert J. Elder Jr., who commands the Eighth Air Force's Barksdale base, told ZDNet.co.uk at the Cyber Warfare Conference 2008 that Air Force is interested in developing its capabilities to attack enemy forces as well as defend critical national infrastructure.

"Offensive cyberattacks in network warfare make kinetic attacks more effective, (for example) if we take out an adversary's integrated defense systems or weapons systems," Elder said. "This is exploiting cyber to achieve our objectives."

However, this is a double-edged sword, as adversaries will also attempt to develop similar capabilities, especially considering the U.S. military's heavy use of technology, said Elder.

"Terrorists and criminals are doing the same thing. We depend so heavily as a military on the use of cyber, we have to be cautious about it," Elder said. "Cyber gives us a huge advantage, but adversaries look at our capabilities and see areas they can undermine. We need to protect our asymmetric advantage--on the one hand by having people further exploit cyber, and on the other by having mission assurance."

This problem is made more pressing by the military's reliance on the public Internet to perpetrate cyberattacks. The infrastructure the U.S. military uses to both launch and defend against cyberattacks runs through the public Internet system. Military networks such as the Global Information Grid are linked to U.S. government and critical national infrastructure systems, which in turn are linked to the public Internet. Adversary systems are subverted by the U.S. military through public channels--however, this also leaves the U.S. military open to attack through the same channels, said Elder.

"The infrastructure on which the Air Force depends is controlled by both military and commercial entities and is vulnerable to attacks and manipulation," Elder said.

Other causes for military concern include possible supply-chain vulnerabilities, where vulnerabilities are introduced into chipsets during manufacturing that an adversary can then exploit, and electronics vulnerabilities.

"We need to make sure chips aren't manipulated--we're worried about information assurance just like everyone else," Elder said.

Other problems being faced by the Cyber Command are centered around different Air Force and military units needing to improve their channels of communication before the autumn.

"We have 10,000 people to do this, but the problem is they are stovepiped," Elder said.

"Stovepiping" has two complementary meanings. In IT terms it describes information held in separate databases which is difficult to access due to its multiple locations. In intelligence-gathering terms--the Eighth also serves as the U.S. Air Force information operations headquarters--"stovepiping" refers to information which has been passed up the chain of command without undergoing due diligence.

Elder said that, while he was satisfied with AFCYBER's covert operations capabilities and its demonstrable ability to remotely destroy missile defense systems, he wished to further develop its attack capabilities.

"IT people set up traditional IT networks with the idea of making them secure to operate and defend," Elder said. "The traditional security approach is to put up barriers, like firewalls--it's a defense thing--but everyone in an operations network is also part of the (attack) force. We're trying to move away from clandestine operations. We're looking for real physics--a bigger bang resulting in collateral damage."

U.S. Cyber Command also needs to develop the means to quickly pinpoint exactly where an attack is coming from, to be able to retaliate, and also to deter potential attackers.

"We haven't done a good job in the cyberdomain just yet," Elder said. "We have to demonstrate the capability to do (rapid forensics) then message that to our adversaries. For deterrence we have to clearly identify the attacker. We're working on rapid forensics to determine who the adversary is."

While cyberespionage was inevitable, said Elder, knowledge of the U.S. military being able to pinpoint the source of cyberattacks could deter assaults on critical national infrastructure that use Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (Scada) systems.

"We're not going to deter cyberespionage, but we might be able to deter attacks on Scada networks," Elder said.

As well as developing forensics tools, Cyber Command is coding tools to check for incursions, including a "Cyber Sidearm", which will monitor activity on the Combat Information Transport System--the U.S. Air Force cybernetwork.

"We've been working to get the functionality built--we're supposed to have it in the next couple of months," Elder said.

U.S. Eighth Air Force said it was seeking partnerships with both public- and private-sector organizations to "secure cyberspace." The Department for Homeland Security's Strategy to Secure Cyberspace includes establishing a public-private architecture to gauge and respond to cyberthreats, and increase information-sharing between public- and private-sector organizations and the military.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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