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Should the USAF be More Concerned with Cyber Security than Missile Defense?

Written by on Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

For thousands of years, the best way to figure out which side would win a war was to determine who had the biggest army and the strongest weapons. That’s largely still true today – you’ll never see a hundred people armed with pitch forks take out a thousand men armed with assault rifles.

That being said, there has been a dramatic shift in the way that battles are being fought. Hardware is still important, certainly, but cyber warfare is becoming more and more critical to the modern warfare. So much so, in fact, that twenty top US Air Force generals called for a meeting to discuss the Air Force’s future role in cyber conflicts.

Image source: Thenewnewinternet.com


The meeting has been a long time coming. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been complaining that China has been attacking America virtually nonstop. Richard Bejtlich, the chief security officer of cyber security form Mandiant, said that China remains aggressive, “they’re kicked out one day and try to get back in the next day.” He added, “The Chinese don’t seem to care (about diplomacy). So I don’t have any hope that the dialogue is reaching anyone of any note.”

In China’s defense, the government has claimed no control over the hacking attacks and they also claim to be a victim of the digital breaches. However, US intelligence officials have formally accused the Chinese government of intentionally stealing American digital information.

It’s certainly troubling whenever any branch of the US military is compromised by a digital attack, but the USAF is particularly vulnerable. Anyone who figures out how to hack into a drone network will gain access to a treasure trove of surveillance data. To make matters worse, hackers could conceivably hijack a drone in flight (some have already done it). It’s hard to figure out what would be worse: a drone turning around and firing on American soldiers or the hijackers landing the drone on enemy soil so that it could be studied and reprogrammed.

This could lead to a shift in the way that the Air Force handles its cyber data. Theoretically, a foreign cyber attack could shut down electric grids, power plants, or financial networks to cripple the US. The USAF will need to establish stronger firewalls and cyber security protocols, certainly, but it could also affect how pilots operate. How will the USAF handle threats if its drone network is compromised? How will airbases operate in a crisis if hackers shut down the power grid? Hopefully, military consulting firms will help the USAF tackle these hard questions. After all, any pilot worth his salt can fly an aircraft in perfect conditions, but what are US pilots supposed to do when the technology that they rely on could betray them?

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