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US Military cyber forces on the defensive in network battle

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The US 24th Air Force - the first dedicated American military cyber force to go operational - is "not yet a warfighting organisation" and needs to "create an awareness of the battlespace", according to its commander.

Major-General Richard Webber, a former nuclear-missile and satellite-jamming officer, took over the 24th in August. Speaking at a recent symposium in Los Angeles, the cyber general indicated that America's uniformed netwar forces have some way to go before they're ready to put digital boot to network ass.

“We need to know how to set up and defend the enterprise. It’s going to be a crawl/walk/run process,” said Webber, quoted by Aerospace Daily and Defense Report. “We’re under attack literally every day."

The 24th's main base at Lackland in Texas, which will cover 50,000 square feet, is still being built and equipped with its panoply of fearful cyber weaponry. It's set to be complete and manned up by some thousands of netwar specialists late next year.

Under Webber's command are two main units, the mainly defensive 688th Information Operations Wing (formerly known as the Air Force Information Operations Center) and the doing-unto-others outfit, the 67th Network Warfare Wing. The 67th has a subsidiary role in doing tiger-team mock attacks against US networks to test their defences, but its main purpose is "computer network exploitation and attack".

For now though, Webber's main focus seems to be on holding back the constant raids and meddling directed at US military networks, rather than taking the fight to the enemy - whoever that may prove to be.

Webber's boss, General Kevin Chilton, spoke of a "massive" cyber attack against the Pentagon nets last year, which was apparently a major reason for the formation of the 24th.

“One year ago this month we had a wake-up call in cyberspace," said the general. "We had a severe intrusion into the Defense networks. It changed the way people are thinking about cyberspace. This time it’s everybody’s problem — every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine."

It seems that at present, US military sysadmins are often forced to respond to cyberstrikes by simply disconnecting from the wider net - but this could have severe consequences on real-world operations if the timing were bad, and senior officers are keen to do better.

"We must learn to fight through an attack," says Webber.

The Aerospace Daily and Defense Report piece is here. ®

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