According to NBC News, Mr. Gates has yet to make a final decision on the new command, but is leaning towards approval. A final decision is expected after the White House unveils its own strategy for cyber defense. Various administration spokesmen have warned that the U.S. is facing an ever-increasing threat against is computer systems, including those that support the military.
One senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the number of attacks against DoD computer networks have more than doubled over the last six months. Some Pentagon websites receive thousands of "probes" a day.
Word of the new cyber command comes amid claims that hackers successfully penetrated a computer network associated with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in 2007. Sources tell The Wall Street Journal that hackers stole more than a "terabyte" of information on the stealth attack jet. While the data was not classified, it did provide additional details on the F-35's capabilities.
But successful penetrations of our military aircraft are not limited to the JSF. In a speech earlier this month, the head of Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive reported that "counterfeit" computer chips have made their way into other military jets. The chips were designed to degrade system capabilities, at the time of an adversary's choosing.
Secretary Gates believes a new cyber command would enhance our defenses against such attacks, and reduce successful penetrations of DoD and contractor systems. Pentagon sources suggest that the new organization will be a "down-sized" unified command, combining elements of all the services, with leadership rotating among the various military branches.
There is, of course, a certain irony in Mr. Gates' plan. Not that long ago, he was moving to terminate the Air Force's effort to create its own cyber command; now he's scrambling to build his own organization, with a similar mission.
To be fair, there were a number of reasons behind the SecDef's decision. In military ricles, there was a perception that the USAF was pushing for supremacy in the cyber mission, at the expense of the other services. Some observers compared the move to another campaign that ended in failure--the service's attempt to become DoD's "executive agent" for UAVs, another proposal that was rejected for Mr. Gates.
Making matters worse, the Air Force even lobbied state governors for potential basing sites, suggesting that the new command might have a presence in dozens of states. As the other services began to push back, they found a willing ally in Mr. Gates. He pulled the plug on the venture last August, two months after firing its leading proponents, then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the service's Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley.
While the service--and its leadership--deserve an "F" for marketing their plan, the cyber proposal was not without merit. The Air Force command would have been headquartered at Offut AFB, Nebraska or Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, in close proximity to U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) and 8th Air Force, organizations charged with DoD's global strike mission.
Additionally, the proposed basing and command structure would have allowed the cyber organization to leverage the capabilities of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency, the service's preeminent cyber-warfare organization. It's also worth noting that the ISR Agency performs a number of missions in the joint arena; in fact, the organization's commander was (at one time) the senior officer for cyber missions within STRATCOM. In other words, while the propose Air Force command was a blue-suit organization, it definitely had a "purple" tint to it, with the ability to support the other services and their missions.
Now, Secretary Gates is talking about a somewhat similar, venture, except his enterprise will be a joint cyber command under--you guessed it--STRATCOM. Details have yet to be announced, but don't be surprised if major elements of the Air Force plan wind up in the new organization.
But a few things are certain. First, don't expect the boys in blue to get any credit for the organization that eventually "stands up" at Offut or another location; there's too much bad blood between Gates and the USAF. Secondly, don't look for Mike Wynne or Buzz Moseley to get an invitation to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, for the same reasons.
And finally, it's worth asking how many of those on-line attacks and probes might have been prevented, had Secretary Gates allowed the Air Force command to start operations last fall, as originally planned. Maybe Mr. Gates will finally realize that the USAF has its share of good ideas, and some of them deserve the fast-track.