The U.S. Air Force began the shift to a major command devoted to cyberwarfare operations Sept. 18 with the creation of a provisional Cyber Command. Though organizational in nature — the Air Force already deals extensively with cyberwarfare — the shift nevertheless marks a significant move toward making the military exploitation of cyberspace operational.
The U.S. Air Force announced the establishment of a provisional Cyber Command on Sept. 18 at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where existing cyber operations already were centered. The provisional command is expected to evolve in less than a year into a major command devoted specifically to cyberwarfare operations and their integration into all Air Force operations. The move to take the lead in making the military exploitation of cyberspace operational marks a significant organizational step for the Air Force. The Air Force cyberwarfare focus will continue to fall under U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which in addition to overseeing the U.S. nuclear deterrent has become an umbrella command for a number of disparate operations — covering everything from space operations to network warfare. (This particular sub-commander in STRATCOM also is the director of the National Security Agency.) Then-STRATCOM head Marine Gen. James Cartwright insisted March 21 that U.S. cyberwarfare efforts include more offensive measures given the daily probes and attacks against U.S. networks. Though cyberwarfare operations are nothing new for the U.S. military — offensive electronic attacks were conducted as part of the NATO air campaign in Kosovo in 1999, and the Air Force has considered cyberspace operations of fundamental importance for years — the unique nature of the Internet means attacks are being conducted against U.S. military and government networks right now. China especially probes for vulnerabilities in U.S. systems on a daily basis. So even as the Air Force works to integrate the new command's operations further into those of STRATCOM and the National Security Agency, it will be engaged in an ongoing online competition with other state and nonstate actors. But while the Air Force inevitably will deal with these day-to-day issues, the shift to a Cyber Command inside the Air Force will help consolidate the branch's leading role in network warfare and create the organizational structure to facilitate the full and coherent exploitation of cyberspace in future joint operations. Though this might sound bureaucratic, it means cyberwarfare will increasingly be integrated with overall operations in joint commands – beginning with the expansion of cyberwarfare from the strategic realm into the operational and tactical realms.