Welcome to Cyberwar Country, USA



By Marty Graham Email 02.11.08 | 12:00 AM

At least 15 locations around the United States are competing for the Air Force's new Cyber Command, the 10th major command in Air Force history.

Rob Beschizza

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, Louisiana -- When a reporter enters the Air Force office of William Lord, a smile comes quickly to the two-star general's face as he darts from behind his immaculate desk to shake hands. Then, as an afterthought, he steps back and shuts his laptop as though holstering a sidearm.

Lord, boyish and enthusiastic, is a new kind of Air Force warrior -- the provisional chief of the service's first new major command since the early 1990s, the Cyber Command. With thousands of posts and enough bandwidth to choke a horse, the Cyber Command is dedicated to the proposition that the next war will be fought in the electromagnetic spectrum, and that computers are military weapons. In a windowless building across the base, Lord's cyber warriors are already perched 24 hours a day before banks of monitors, scanning Air Force networks for signs of hostile incursion.

"We have to change the way we think about warriors of the future," Lord enthuses, raising his jaw while a B-52 traces the sky outside his windows. "So if they can't run three miles with a pack on their backs but they can shut down a SCADA system, we need to have a culture where they fit in."

Maj. Gen. William Lord is provisional commander of the Air Force's new Cyber Command.

Courtesy U.S. Air Force

But before Lord and his geek warriors can settle in for the wars of the future, the general has to survive a battle of a decidedly different nature: a political and cultural tug of war over where the Cyber Command will set up its permanent headquarters. And that, for Lord and the Air Force, is where things get trickier than a Chinese Trojan horse.

With billions of dollars in contracts and millions in local spending on the line, 15 military towns from Hampton, Virginia, to Yuba City, California, are vying to win the Cyber Command, throwing in offers of land, academic and research tie-ins, and, in one case, an $11 million building with a moat. At a time when Cold War-era commands laden with aging aircraft are shriveling, the nascent Cyber Command is universally seen as a future-proof bet for expansion, in an era etched with portents of cyberwar.

Russian Hackers and Chinese Cyberspies

The news is everywhere. When Russian hackers were blamed for a wave of denial-of-service attacks against Estonian websites last spring, President Bush voiced concern that the United States would face the same risk. The national intelligence director, Michael McConnell, recently claimed a computer attack against a single U.S. bank could cause more economic harm than 9/11, and called for more National Security Agency surveillance of the internet. A CIA official followed up with a tale about cyber attackers causing multi-city power failures overseas. Some in the military believe Chinese cyberspies have already penetrated unclassified Pentagon computers.

Where buzz flows, money follows, and the investment in info-war comes as the Air Force cuts back personnel elsewhere to fund new aircraft: The service just finished phasing out 20,000 enlisted men and women, with plans to dump 20,000 more by 2011. The effect of military cutbacks on the surrounding communities can be devastating. "If you gain or lose a unit in a place where the military is already a major employer, it has a huge impact," says Chris Erickson, a New Mexico State University professor.

Unofficial estimates say 10,000 military and ancillary jobs could clump around the 500 posts at the Cyber Command's permanent headquarters. The governors of California, New Mexico and Louisiana are pitching their locales directly to the secretary of the Air Force. In December, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal took advantage of a meeting with President Bush on Katrina recovery to lobby for the Cyber Command. A dozen congressional delegations have weighed in as well. Lord is feeling the heat.

"Oh Lord," the general sighs, "there's congressional pressure."

Location, Location, Location

"It would sure be nice to have it here," says Tammy Frank, manager of the Waffle House in Bossier, Louisiana, outside Barksdale's gates. She pushes her hair behind her ears and leans on the cash register. "My (preteen) son is into computers, and it will be easier for him to find a good job and stay here."

The Cyber Command was provisionally established on Barksdale's 22,000 acres in October, at the edge of a black lake stitched with swamp trees that narrow just above the water line. The placement was good news for Bossier, which took it as a sign that Louisiana would win the permanent command, too.

A military town for generations, this sprawling suburb-opolis has about 58,000 residents, including 7,000 active-duty and reserve personnel. Across the Red River in Shreveport, downtown buildings are crumbling and half-abandoned -- but Bossier is thriving. Now realtors are touting proximity to the Cyber Command as a selling point for houses, while local residents hope permanent placement will boost the local economy, and perhaps even infuse the town with high-tech esprit.

The planned Cyber Innovation Center will be designed to withstand a variety of attacks.

Architects Mark Prevot and Mike McSwain/Courtesy Cyber Innovation Center

Development head Craig Spohn stands on the 64-acre site of the Cyber Innovation Center, future home to defense contractors, cyber innovators and academia, adjacent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier, Louisiana.

Marty Graham/Wired.com

To persuade the Air Force of Bossier's potential as a Deep South Silicon Valley, city officials broke ground last month on a "Cyber Innovation Center," a $100 million office complex abutting Barksdale. The consortium paid $4.7 million for a 64-acre parcel, and they've raised $50 million from state and local government and another $50 million from the federal government for a complex of buildings, starting with an $11 million, 120,000-square-foot cyberfortress. Renderings show a moat and huge, silvery wedges of metal jutting outward from the building's base. There's a jet in the design, pointed toward the sky.

Built-In Force Protection

"The building has force protection designed into it," says Craig Spohn, who's heading the development. "It can withstand a multitude of attacks."

Spohn ambles with a limp across a newly cleared patch of an old pecan grove that will house the gleaming redoubt. The trees remaining on the land are leafless in the bright winter haze, and a B-52 floats through the sky beyond, headed for the strip at Barksdale. The sight of the 47-year old planes coming and going is so common here that only out-of-town visitors and aviation enthusiasts still stare at them

Spohn follows it with his eyes. A lanky, gray-haired man in a nice suit, Spohn came back to work directly from arthroscopic knee surgery, and shows off fresh stitches in three holes on his left knee. He has personal reasons for wanting to win the Cyber Command. "My dad is retired Air Force," he says. "I moved wet and warm to Barksdale, and I love it here. There were no jobs for me when I left. And I eventually returned with a job working for SAIC.

"There are a lot of us who want to come back," he adds.

"Tell the Nation That the Age of Cyberwarfare Is Here"

The Cyber Command is rooted in a historic vision statement penned in 2005 by the secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, and co-signed by the Air Force chief of staff. In the 21st century, Wynne wrote, America's enemies would contest America in a new range of theaters, and the armed forces must be ready to meet them and, if necessary, "destroy them" there. Henceforth, he vowed, the Air Force would "fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace."

"Tell the nation," Wynne reiterated in a speech last September, "that the age of cyberwarfare is here."

"Our mission is to control cyberspace both for attacks and defense," says Lord's boss, Lt. Gen. Robert Elder -- a three-star general who totes a Blackberry and holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Wearing a green flight suit with no brass, bars or Bronze Star in sight, Elder relaxes in a leather chair away from his desk, and lays out the vision, which amounts to nothing less than a complete transformation of the Air Force.

"We have to learn to plan years out for operations, security defense and integration, to plan how to deter attacks, how to posture to prevent attacks, and we have to stay very current," Elder says.

The Air Force Network Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base is known as AFNOC to the cyber warriors who work here.

Courtesy: U.S. Air Force

The new command, only the 10th in Air Force history, means a single leadership for a number of pieces already in place under different wings. Cyber warriors are already being trained at Hurlburt Air Force Base in Florida, while Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio holds the defense portion. Predator reconnaissance UAVs are flown out of Nevada, and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska has a cluster of information and intelligence wings.

No one knows how many people will ultimately be incorporated into the Cyber Command. The Air Force's other nine commands range in size from slightly over 14,000 personnel in the Special Ops Command to 167,000 in the Air Combat Command. A recent Network World article, quoting Elder, reports the Cyber Command will have 5,000 to 10,000 people. But the Air Force now disavows that number, confirming only that about 500 airmen and airwomen will be stationed at the Cyber Command headquarters itself.

Unified Command, Single Commander

The important thing, the Air Force says, is that under a unified command, decisions about how to use all the pieces -- and control of the budget, more than $2 billion the first year -- will be in the hands of a single commander instead of being spread out as they are now.

"It makes us nimble," says Elder. "It means we can react quickly to change." But, he cautions, there's no plan to consolidate all those pieces in one location. Such a move would run counter to Air Force policies of decentralized commands.

The Air Force's new Cyber Command already has an official seal.

Courtesy: U.S. Air Force

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the reorganization. Defense expert John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, says the Cyber Command's mission is murky. "There's been so much gee-whiz flackery to this," Pike says. "They've got the whole thing tarted up, and it's hard to tell what they're actually doing."

Pike says the Cyber Command may be part of a secret Air Force plan to prepare for war against China, already suspected of trying to hack Department of Defense networks. He says the new command's defensive mission is muddled and duplicative: The NSA already defends military networks. As for civilian infrastructures like the internet and power grid, they're privately owned, and the Air Force has no jurisdiction over them.

Lord concedes that the Air Force can't do much on its own to protect civilian systems. "We're worrying about the ability of someone to interrupt Wall Street and crash the economy," he says. "We're having a hard time getting Wall Street to work with us."

On the offensive side, though, everything is on the table, from jamming an enemy's radar to infiltrating its command-and-control networks. Someday, the Cyber Command may be able to hack an enemy's security and radar systems, improving the chances of bombs hitting home.

"It's the entire electromagnetic spectrum," says Lord. "Many of the elements that form (Cyber Command) come from our communications and intel operations. The internet is obviously part, but it also includes things like cellphone frequencies, high-power microwaves and directed-energy components.

"What if we could spoof the enemy, to get them to operate on a set of assumptions by altering their data?" Lord asks. "We talk about being able to change the enemy's behavior without a kinetic application. Weapons of mass disruption."

Cold War Sites Compete for the Code War

When the Cyber Command was formally announced in September, the competition began immediately. Rural Yuba City, California -- the home of Beale Air Force Base -- rounded up 53 signatures from the state's congressional delegation, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to try to plant the Cyber Command on California's fertile soil. In a newspaper interview, community leader Ron Bartoli touted Yuba's access to Silicon Valley, which lies about 170 miles away, and argued that cyberwarfare is consistent with Golden State values. "It's computers, it's green, it's everything California says they want."

The Cheyenne Mountain complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado -- once the home of NORAD -- is now a candidate to house the headquarters of Cyber Command.

Courtesy: U.S. Air Force

Eight hundred miles away in San Antonio, U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) was explaining the high-tech acumen of his community. "The robust cyber-security research community in San Antonio has transformed the Alamo City into a national leader on the subject," he said in a statement. In the Rockies, Colorado Springs came late to the party, but offered the coolest location: inside Cheyenne Mountain, which once served as headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), but is now used mostly for training.

In the heartland, architecture students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln held an exhibition to come up with potential building designs for the Cyber Command, producing 13 detailed drawings resembling bunkers, platforms and a burnished black wedge. "I believe the ... proposals may play a provocative role in the future planning of such a free-standing facility," architecture professor Chris Ford said in a press release.

Nebraska has long held a unique post in America's defensive footing, and it's moun
ting a particularly hungry bid for the Cyber Command. In 1948, Offutt Air Force Base was selected for the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, the linchpin of America's nuclear strategy. Square in the middle of the North American continent, the site was out of reach of existing bombers and missiles.

Architecture students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln produced 13 concepts for the Cyber Command headquarters. This one is by Burt Jamison.

Courtesy: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Now called the U.S. Strategic Command, the drab, concrete headquarters building still anchors Offutt to the nuclear era, with three above-ground floors and four more underground housing a 14,000-square-foot command center that directs all U.S. nuclear forces. It's designed with its own power generator and food supply, so it can be sealed off in the event of a nuclear attack.

Comparisons between nuclear and cyberweapons might seem strained, but there's at least one commonality. Scholars exploring the ethics of wielding logic bombs, Trojan horses, worms and bots in wartime often find themselves treading on ground tilled by an earlier generation of Cold War nuclear gamesmen.

"There are lots of unknowns with a cyberattack," says Neil Rowe, a professor at the Center for Information Security Research at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, who rejects cyberattacks as a legitimate tool of war. "The potential for collateral damage is worse than nuclear technology.... With cyber, it can spread through the civilian infrastructure and affect far more civilians."

No Geographic Edge

But ethical concerns aren't weighing down the rainmakers wooing the Cyber Command; they're more concerned with local families and future investment. And without the geographic edge that landed the Strategic Air Command in their backyard a half-century ago, community leaders in Omaha and nearby Bellevue are finding new ways to tempt the decision makers in Washington.

"We've offered a package that includes land, facilities, and a demographic of strong academics and industrial consortium," says Megan Lucas, president of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. "We have the infrastructure, dual power grids and dark fiber."

Lucas is a key organizer in the region's yearlong campaign to land the Cyber Command at Offutt. Smart and straightforward, Lucas is so well-known among Offutt staff that they keep track of her schedule, and when the previous base commander, then-Brig. Gen. T. C. Jones, left Offutt, he designated her his honorary wingman. A photo of Lucas in her black-leather bomber jacket hangs outside the headquarters office.

Lucas and other local leaders persuaded the Omaha Development Foundation to put together a purchase of 136 acres of snow-crunched land immediately south of the base for expansion. Bellevue's entire economic engine and its community are wrapped around Offutt, she says. Nearly half the people in the town of 49,000 are active-duty or retired military.

Talk of the Cyber Command has gotten around in Bellevue. In the lounge at the Leopard Lanes bowling alley, a Desert Storm veteran named Jim Chappell runs the karaoke machine on weekends. He says he's heard about the competition. "Maybe Offutt will get it, they're wired for it," he says, lighting a cigarette with his father's Zippo. "That's how dealing with the government is. You have to spend money to attract it. But there's plenty of money and work here either way.

"It's all political, where they decide to put it," says Lucas. "We're clearly the best situated and equipped. But that doesn't mean we'll get it."

"We Are Our Own Worst Enemy"

The underground "big board" at the Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, dates back to 1957 or so. Offutt is another candidate for the new Cyber Command headquarters, which uses giant monitors for its big board.

Courtesy: Air Force Historical Research Agency/GlobalSecurity.org

Inside the Air Force Network Operations Center at Barksdale, a tan, windowless building in the northwest corner of the base, the cyberwar is in full pitch. But the internet jihadists and Chinese hacker troops the Cyber Command is expecting so far haven't materialized. Spammers are the enemy today.

Airmen and women sit at rows of computer tables staring at Dell-branded LCD monitors. On one wall, a huge screen is slashed into quadrants with maps and coordinates, while in the next room, more personnel watch a similar display showing sports and news channels.

"Because you're here, we've put this up instead of the classified information that was up there," Lt. Col. Ken Vantiger says. "As soon as you leave, we'll go back to classified operations.

Capt. Scott Hinck, crew commander at the center, works the defensive side of the room, monitoring what's being done at Barksdale, and what's coming in from Lackland. He says it's pretty clear where their greatest vulnerability lies. "We are our own worst enemy," Hinck says. "Our network connects more than a million Air Force users, and you can only do so much to secure your software."

Air Force users are forbidden, both by direct order and by a government firewall, from using Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and dozens of other sites, Hinck says. "Social network sites are such a security liability, not just for attacks, but for the information people post about themselves.... We have direct evidence (correlating) the release of information to responsive attacks and changes in the enemy's strategies."

Even with the restrictions, Air Force network users still get plenty of attacks from phishers, malicious e-mail and hostile "Click Here" links, Hinck says. "We fended off eight attacks in the last hour."

Hoping For Too Much?

It's a heady time for the Cyber Command. The Air Force just graduated its first group of electronic warriors in December from a 38-day training program at Hurlburt Air Force Base in Florida. The graduates came from both officer and enlisted ranks, according to 1st Lt. Ashley Connor, a spokeswoman with the base.

Cyber warriors first train with the 229th Information Operations Squadron in Vermont, then come to Hurlburt for further training with the 39th Information Operations Squadron. Hurlburt expects to graduate about a hundred warriors a year, Connor says.

With the troops arriving, Lord has a tight deadline to get the new command headquarters running at its permanent location by October 2008, with the operation fully established by 2009. The short list of top contenders for the Cyber Command is expected from the secretary of the Air Force in February, and the Air Force brass is watching the heated battle with a mix of awe and dismay.

Louisiana politicians, including Governor Bobby Jindal and both U.S. senators, break ground on the Cyber Innovation Center in late January.

Neil Johnson/Courtesy Cyber Innovation Center

"All the locations came forward on their own," says Ed Gulick, spokesman for the secretary of the Air Force. "The Air Force has not solicited them."

Lord's boss, Elder, says he appreciates the efforts of the communities competing for the command, but he's concerned that they're expecting too much from it. "This will be a good deal for the community where it is set up," he says. "It will attract contractor presence. But not an ind
ustry -- manufacturing jobs."

"I worry that they are looking at this as the opposite of BRAC," Elder adds, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure process that's mostly shrinking bases and chipping into base-reliant communities. "It's not going to be on that scale."

Windfall or not, Barksdale-booster Spohn is confident that his community will prevail in the ersatz cyberwar. He even has plans to build an additional 380,000 square feet of offices to house educational, research and manufacturing operations near the base. While everyone is taciturn publicly, he's convinced he's seen winks and nods from Air Force bigwigs.

"In as many ways as they can tell us they're committed, they've told us," Spohn says. Lapsing into military-speak, he adds, "My confidence is high."

See Also:

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