It took a while for the United States to realize it needed to be involved in a different kind of war – a war that focuses on bits and bytes instead of boots and bombs.

Cyber warfare is the next big push for the nation’s war fighters, and the country is behind in developing ways to combat the threat – but is starting to define its mission, said Gen. Michael Kehler of the 24th Air Force, the division set up to define the nation’s cyber war and assure its security.

Cyber warfare was the topic today of the first two sessions of the Space Symposium.

And that war will include civilians – both civilian casualties and civilian fighters – as the nation strives to find the ways to protect electric grids, computer networks, financial institutions and military secrets.

“The bottom line is we are at war in cyberspace … today … all the time,” said Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, commander of the Air Education and Training Command.

Other countries have successfully used cyber warfare – Israel is one of the leaders, having begun its work in this realm in the 1990s. The U.S. was slow to recognize the threat, but is moving to catch up.

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Cyberspace adds a dimension to war fighting, and cyber soldiers try not only protect the nation’s information technology assets, but will attack the enemy’s assets as well.

“It will take a little while for us to get our feet on the ground,” Kehler said. “I think the growth potential across all the services here is large.”

That’s big news for Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Space Command at Peterson. The cyber command falls under the Space Command’s mission.
Government aerospace contractors are branching out into cyberspace, raising hopes of more jobs for the city.

“To say it’s emerging is an understatement,” said Bob Bishop, a marketing director for Boeing Corp. “It’s going to be booming very soon.”

The new Air Force division was established last fall. Because it’s still new, Air Force officials are still determining just what its cyber mission will take.

Kehler said the mission “represented the same great set of opportunities for Colorado Springs” as the establishment of the original Air Force space mission.

The opportunity for growth is equaled by the size of the threat.
Michael McConnell has worked in cyber security in both the civilian and public sectors, and said that Sept. 11 could have been worse.

“If the 9/11 terrorists had been cyber-smart, they could have brought down our entire banking system,” he said. “They could have destroyed that data and that could have had catastrophic global implications.”

McConnell is clear: when he talks about cyber war, he doesn’t mean the intelligence gathering other countries do via the Internet.

“I don’t mean hacking, I don’t mean spamming, I don’t mean identity theft,” he said. “I don’t mean China grabbing information to exploit. I mean there are groups out there who could not only copy the information – but destroy it. And once it’s gone, it could bring our $14 trillion economy down.”

The threat is real, and it occurs every day. Already, there are people who could attack large banking systems.
“I know half a dozen people in our government who can do it,” he said. “And I know another half dozen in the private sector who could.”

The very real threat led him to seize an opportunity as a national security adviser to President Bush to encourage a national cyber mission – Bush agreed and Congress approved the money for it. When Barack Obama became president, he gave the same presentation.

“The result, we’re not ready – but we’re getting there,” he said.

Private sector companies are already working to defend infrastructure from attacks from malware, spam, identity theft. McAfee is one of those companies – and it recognizes it can never end the threat completely.

“As long as the Internet is successful, we can’t get off line,” said Michael Gallagher of McAfee’s global threat division. “And that makes us a target.”

Cyber attacks can cost millions, he said. But despite the size of the threat, there is no punishment.

“People operate with relative impunity,” he said. “There’s no retribution, no punishment. Corporations just want it fixed, but they don’t necessarily want to go after the people who did it.”

The Internet is still too new for people to view cyber crimes as serious crimes, he said.

“We’re like the wildebeasts, crossing the river. The alligators know we have to cross the river, but there’s no one hunting the alligators,” he said.

But as corporate interests and military start to work together – there will soon be thousands of people hunting down every alligator in the river.

Click here to read more Space Symposium coverage on the CSBJ Space Symposium Web page.