Dominance in cyberspace might not be possible

Murky territory, information overload, bureaucracy all pose challenges for cyber warfare

The heavy-duty requirements of doing battle in cyberspace present a unique challenge for the Defense Department – one that, unlike air, sea, land and space, could prove impossible for the U.S. to dominate, according to some top Navy officials.

“Unlike the physical domain, achieving dominance may be impossible,” said Rear Adm. William Leigher, deputy commander of Navy Fleet Cyber Command. “Cyber warfare necessitates considerable demand on intelligence and resources. We need to know our targets and vulnerabilities, and understand the relationship between them.”

Leigher spoke on a panel of Navy officials discussing the state of cyber warfare at the AFCEA West conference in San Diego on Jan. 26.

Leigher said the U.S. needs to deepen its understanding of cyber warfare – something that could be hindered by a Westernized view that focuses too much on direct, force-on-force targets.

“A lot of things might look like a nail when the only weapon you have is a hammer, and that’s true for cyber,” he said.

Marine Corps CIO Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally agreed that the U.S. military must improve on knowledge and understanding of the cyber landscape, and added that increased training and education is a key part of that.

“We have way too much information out there. ... We need to focus on knowledge. My vision is to build a knowledge-based force,” Nally said.

The cyber picture is further complicated by layers of technology and bureaucracy, according to Rear Adm. Jerry Burroughs, Navy program executive officer for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence.

“The layered capabilities have created excessive complexity. ... We need agility and robustness,” Burroughs said.

DOD cyber operations also need to align with traditional, kinetic warfare – a line that can be blurry as the military’s cyber force is still taking shape.

“There’s a lot that’s different about cyberspace, but a lot that’s the same,” said Terry Halvorsen, Navy CIO. He added that cyber operations must balance the relationship between kinetic and non-kinetic warfare, the acceptable levels of risk and the policies behind cyber warfare.

“The power of being networked is more powerful than a threat faced by, say, a Navy submarine. We have to determine what risk is acceptable in cyberspace, just as in kinetic [warfare],” Halvorsen said.

“We have a challenge as a nation. We have the capabilities to [execute offensive measures] in cyberspace ... but the policy piece inside of 495 in DC is something that has to be worked out. Cyber operations are as politically and diplomatically a weapon as it is militarily," he added.

Leigher agreed, warning that it could be dangerous for cyber operations to get bogged down with bureaucracy and policy.

“This is engagement in a world that happens in milliseconds; we can’t function in a world of a long, long chain of command,” Leigher said.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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