According to the Associated Press, the Pentagon has put a hold on the Air Force's planned "Cyber Command" and may scrap the project altogether.
In a memo distributed throughout the Air Force this week, service officials announced that manning and budget transfers for Air Force Cyber Command have been suspended, delaying the command’s official Oct. 1 start. The Pentagon and the Air Force are expected to make a decision as to the command’s fate later this month. The command is temporarily based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and will eventually have a headquarters staff of about 500 people and 8,000 personnel total.
Offutt Air Force Base, which sits south of the Omaha, Neb., is among the bases being considered to house the command’s headquarters.
The Air Force considers cyberspace a “domain” for which the service should train and equip forces to defend, as it does airspace. There are about 3 million attempted penetrations of Defense Department networks every day, according to the Air Force.
A senior Pentagon official tells the AP that the mission to defend cyberspace might be better suited to U.S. Strategic Command, which is headquartered at Offut. Strategic Command, or "Strat Com" is responsible for cyber warfare across DoD.
The decision comes just days after Russia conducted a major computer network attack as part of its invasion of Georgia. The assault crippled information systems of the Georgian government, and denied internet access across much of the country.
Moscow's employment of cyberwarfare in Georgia provides a reminder of the potential danger to U.S. computer systems. Because of that threat, a former Air Force Secretary sees the "Cyber Command" decision as ill-timed, at best:
The Russians just shot down the government command nets so they could cover their incursion,” Wynne said. “This was really one of the first aspects of a coordinated military action that had cyber as a lead force, instead of sending in air planes. We need to figure out a way not only see the attack coming but to block it, and in blocking it close to home.”
“I think this is a very poor time to send a signal that the United States is not interested in focusing on warfighting in the cyber domain,” Wynne added.
Mr. Wynne was fired from his post earlier this year, after a series of problems with the service's nuclear program--and disputes with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
But, on closer examination, the planned hold on "Cyber Command" may not be such a blow to the Air Force after all. Stratcom's cyber capabilities are chiefly rooted in two USAF Force organizations--Headquarters Eighth Air Force (based at Barksdale) and the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, located at Lackland AFB, Texas.
In fact, the commander of the ISR Agency, Major General Craig Koziol, has the primary responsibility for cyber warfare, under the overall direction of Stratcom and its leader, General Kevin Chilton.
The Pentagon's decision may be viewed as something of a slap at the Air Force--and perhaps it is, to some degree. But the service's role in cyberwarfare is hardly diminished, and the USAF will retain a leading role in that mission, even as part of a unified command.
ADDENDUM: We wonder if the service's handling of CyberCommand basing and manning issues influenced the Pentagon's decision. After plans for the organization were announced, CyberCommand grew almost exponentially; there was talk of a "virtual" headquarters with cyber units in a number of states. The USAF began consulting state governors, who jockeyed for a piece of the cyber pie, just as they compete for a new manufacturing plant.
As the process became more politicized, CyberCommand looked more like a jobs and dollars program than a military effort. Apparently that didn't set well with DoD leadership, which decided to put a hold on the Air Force's newest command.