Kevin Coleman

Military looking for a new class of cyber weapons

The U.S. government has accelerated the development of a new class of weaponry

The U.S. National Security Strategy in 2010 stated that cyber threats represent one of the most serious national security, public safety and economic challenges there is to our nation. Fast forward to today when speaking at Harvard, Army GEN Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that even though the world appears to enjoy greater stability and interdependence, threats loom beneath the surface. The threats, which range from cyber warfare to the proliferation of long-range missiles, actually place American security at greater risk than before, he said.

This opinion seems to be echoed in the Pentagon’s recent actions that resulted in many a raised eyebrow. Technical publications and websites are packed with the headlines such as The Washington Post’s “Pentagon to fast-track cyber weapons acquisition.” By one account there were nearly 1,500 new Web postings on the topic in one week in April. This move by the Pentagon is being driven by specific congressional legislation enacted in 2011 requiring the Pentagon to develop a strategy for the rapid acquisition of the tools and capabilities for cyber warfare.

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Earlier this year, a House Armed Services Committee panel generated a report that identified a massive increase in rules and regulations as an acquisition challenge for the defense industry and a big hidden cost for the Defense Department, not to mention that the Pentagon’s recent unveiling of its 2013 budget would cut $487 billion in spending over the next decade. Make no mistake about it, DOD is doing what it takes to bypass the well-established and heavily engrained bureaucracy and accelerate development and acquisition of this new class of weaponry.

You have to admit the words fast and effective are seldom used, if at all, in the context of defense acquisition, and yet that is what is being said about the new process. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, has been quoted as saying that we can’t sit around and wait for the traditional weapons-building and acquisition process. This is such a critical concern for Pentagon officials that they have instituted controls and oversight to prevent abuse of the fast-track process for cyber weapons.

You must also keep in mind the fact that military strategists and doctrine experts are still struggling to craft the rules of engagement in cyberspace. So what really drove the Pentagon to take this aggressive posture? One insider stated that this rapid acquisition process was specifically designed to respond to “urgent, mission-critical” needs when the risk to operations is deemed very high and unacceptable. Another explanation is that each target is different and what might work in Iran, will not work the same way in China or it may not work at all. Still another suggested explanation is that we have experienced a significant attack that was very successful on classified systems. If this were true, you can easily understand why the Pentagon would push to compress the cyber weapons development timeline. Finally, one suggestion was that the acceleration was due to intelligence about Iran and its cyber ambitions that some say are being supported by China, Russia and even North Korea.

I believe this has been done in recognition of the pace with which the cyber threat domain evolves. Kinetic weapons development programs, in many cases, take years and in some cases take more than a decade. This differs dramatically from cyber weapons. This new class of weaponry must be developed in hours, days and weeks to address continued cyber assaults against critical systems. You can easily envision an ongoing attack of major consequences on our critical infrastructure and the need to develop a specific cyber weapon to defeat the attacking computers.

Countries around the world face more complex threats that demand them to create a new and much more comprehensive strategy for national security. There is little disagreement that today a proper national security strategy requires cyber capabilities. That fact is what has driven militaries around the world to initiate cyber offensive, cyber defensive and cyber intelligence programs.

About the Author

Kevin Coleman is a senior fellow with the Technolytics Institute, former chief strategist at Netscape, and an adviser on cyber warfare and security. He is also the author of "Cyber Commander's Handbook." He can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected]

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