Military leaders requested a new task force to fight cyberwar. They got Space Force instead

Military leaders requested a new task force to fight cyberwar. They got Space Force instead
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Delano Scott
News & Politics

Right now, Texas is under siege, and there’s not too much our military can do about it.

On Jan. 7, Gov. Greg Abbott told the Domestic Terrorism Task Force that the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) measured, over a 48-hour period, a colossal increase of cyberattacks from Iran on their state agencies “at a rate of about 10,000 per minute.” The DIR claimed it couldn’t provide specific details for security reasons, but some attacks they couldn’t keep under wraps. For example, Texans who visited their Department of Agriculture’s website on Jan. 6 were likely surprised to find an Iranian flag, along with a tribute to deposed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Iran has invested heavily in cyberwarfare ever since the Stuxnet virus attack on their uranium enrichment facility in November 2007. Since 2010, Iran has had success attacking several sectors here in the U.S. During the past 10 years, Iranian hackers have breached several U.S. banksstolen terabytes of information from universities and government agencies, and even broke into the computer system of a dam outside New York City. In 2013, right after Sheldon Adelson suggested that the United States threaten Tehran with a massive explosion, his Las Vegas Sands’ Casino had its hard drives wiped, allegedly costing $40 million in damages. Just last week, a company that tracks foreign adversaries online discovered that Iranian hackers have developed an extremely sophisticated cyber espionage tool that can track specific individuals online who are targeted for assassination.

The Iranian cyberattacks have seriously escalated since the Jan. 2 assassination of Soleimani, and will likely continue to increase for some time. Cyberattacks can cause a significant amount of damage with minimal effort, but also don’t carry the same weighted response as a direct military assault, due to their subversive and clandestine nature.

These high-tech onslaughts have become a major issue in the past few years; it’s gotten so bad that even disgraced former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen admitted that cyberattacks have moved from an “epidemic” to a “pandemic.” Now Iran is launching an all-out assault, joining other American adversaries such as Russia, China, and North Korea. We can expect ongoing attacks against critical infrastructure sectors, major businesses, and even our elections for the foreseeable future.

We are in desperate need of strong leadership to fight this new war—and it is a war. Unfortunately, we have Donald Trump, who POLITICO appropriately refers to as the “anti-cybersecurity president.” Honestly, that’s an understatement.

Trump has practically waged his own personal war against any and all cybersecurity measures. In April 2018, one month after Trump congratulated Putin on his fourth consecutive sham re-election, Trump demoted and marginalized our nation’s top cybersecurity officials across various agencies. The following month, he completely eliminated the vital Cybersecurity Coordinator on the National Security Council. He’s done everything he can to leave the nation more vulnerable to these types of attacks, and no one should be surprised.

In Trump’s warped, conspiracy-laden mind, our own government agencies are full of  “Deep State” actors who are always plotting against him. Alternatively, he views Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un as his close personal allies. Trump has openly encouraged foreign cyberattacks that he thinks will personally benefit him, and has previously stated that he did not believe his own intelligence agencies were more credible than Putin’s word that Russia would never engage in a cyberwar against us.

Many suspect that Trump is actually counting on foreign intervention to help his election campaign once again. Why else would Trump oppose taking action on cybersecurity measures, especially when it comes to election security? Fortunately for Trump, he has “Moscow Mitch” McConnell as his fall guy. McConnell has refused to allow any election security bills to come up for a vote, although a tough election year has been weakening his resolve.

Even worse than Moscow Mitch is Trump ally Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who leads the Senate committee on cybersecurity issues. He has largely escaped media scrutiny thus far, but has been very successful at blocking all major cybersecurity legislation during Trump’s tenure. This behavior can and should be considered both treasonous and unAmerican, but I suppose the same could be said of what has become of the Republican Party under Trump’s rule.

At the other end of the spectrum, an assortment of military leaders and cyber experts have not only asked to make cyberwarfare a high priority for the nation’s defense, but have called for the establishment of a new force to tackle what’s become the country’s top foreign threat. Retired Navy Admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James G. Stavridis, retired Army General and Director of the National Security Agency Keith B. Alexander, among several others, have called for the establishment of a U.S. Cyber Force.

Trump, for his part, did agree that the nation needed a new branch of the military; unfortunately, it was the Space Force. Last year’s $738 billion defense bill allowed Trump to leverage his rally cry for a sixth uniformed branch of the US military, the U.S. Space Force. This is quite impressive, considering it literally started off as a joke. Trump, who is not an expert on anything, put about as much thought into this new military force as one would expect. This was how he announced the effort:

“You know, I was saying it the other day because we're doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, maybe we need a new force. We'll call it the Space Force. And I was not really serious. And then I said, what a great idea! Maybe we'll have to do that. That could happen.

That could be the big breaking story... Ahhhh, look at those [reporters] back there.  AHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, that fake news.”

No, that’s not from an SNL sketch. That is really how he announced it, along with some nonsense about how we can finally go to Mars because, as we all know, Hillary Clinton was against it.

And just like that, BOOM! A multi-billion dollar boondoggle was born.

According to Trump, the next “warfighting domain” is space. In describing the new military branch, your president envisions spacesuited warriors in spaceships fighting in outer space. Some of the first duties the Space Force’s new commander has been tasked with is the critical selection of a uniform design, logo, and an official service song. Trump’s campaign helpfully put out six potential Space Force logos in a competition, complete with cartoon rocket ships and slogans like “Mars Awaits.”

As for their official service song, at least that’s covered.

UPDATE: The Pentagon just released the new uniforms, and the internet is having a field day.

Thankfully, the Pentagon and Congressional leaders managed to take Trump’s preposterous idea and essentially just repackage existing military space missions from the Air Force and create a new military branch. This seems to have placated Trump, and his followers love him for it. Although what they think it actually is might be the most hilarious thing you’ve ever seen.

In reality, this new branch of the Armed Forces is not designed to fight “Space ISIS.” The plan is for the U.S. Space Force to be set up similarly to the Marine Corps, where it will be part of another service but have its own general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The service has nothing to do with rockets or going to Mars. Instead, it will primarily be focused on managing information from satellites. Unlike what Trump is telling his followers, it will NOT be, as one aerospace experts puts it, about “putting military servicemembers in space, it has nothing to do with NASA, it's not about protecting Earth from asteroids or aliens.”

Why this particular mission requires a new military branch is questionable at best. The congressional leaders who defended the move said maybe it was needed because space was taking a backseat to air dominance in the Air Force. This is a poor argument. As Democratic Senate candidate and former astronaut Mark Kelly has argued, submarines don’t get the same amount of attention as surface ships in the Navy, and yet no one has ever argued that the solution should be that they get their own service. A much better idea would have been to make organizational adjustments to the existing structure, and promote more space-oriented leaders into higher positions within the Air Force.

There are more than enough reasons why Space Force is a bad idea, starting with the fact that its mission was an afterthought to the primary reason, which, much like his vanity border wall, only exists to serve Trump’s ego. The new service is going to have to create an expensive, expansive bureaucracy, with hundreds to thousands of new, highly-paid positions, which will likely be duplicates from other areas. Furthermore, there is no “warfighting,” as Trump likes to (dishonestly) say. The satellites the Space Force will service will not be equipped with any defensive fighting capabilities, at least not anytime soon. In fact, the new service will actually have to depend on other branches to carry out any military response.

study for the Air Command and Staff College listed three things that must be considered when discussing starting any new branch of the military:

  1. The service must be predicated on a threat that cannot be mitigated by the other services
  2. It must be uniquely defined
  3. It must be realistic in scope

Space Force fails on all three. In fact, the study summarizes its data by saying “an independent space force does not meet these criteria...” It concludes, however, that there is an idea that does: an independent cyberforce.

As has been stated, the top threat to this nation comes not from outer space, but rather cyberspace. Right before Trump took office, the Department of Defense Inspector General concluded that the way our nation’s cyber capabilities are currently structured is not only inefficient, but suffers from a lack of a hierarchical, unified approach. Furthermore, our adversaries aren’t just gaining on us, they are surpassing us.

Funding a cyberwarfare service would be relatively cheap, especially in comparison to the other services, and vastly cheaper than trying to equip satellites with military hardware. Cyberwarfare is a very unique threat, unlike the mission of any of the current services. In 2009, the Chief of Staff for the Army’s research arm wrote an impassioned plea for the new potential service, based on the fact that the military culture for each of the current services is incompatible with the culture needed for a highly-trained technical workforce. Decades, and even centuries, of military culture has focused on things like physical endurance and marksmanship, whereas combating cyberwarfare requires a strong set of unique technical skills for creative problem-solving and critical thinking.

This culture is one reason that people with the right skillsets leave the service for the private sector. Although the Army seems to have taken the lead in forming new cyber- and electronic warfare units, they remain critically undermanned.

Elevating the current cyber structure to a new service would also relieve the other military branches of the burden to equip and train cyberwarriors, so they can focus solely on their respective core missions. Unlike the other warfighting domains, the threats in cyberspace evolve at a breakneck pace and constantly require new tools and skillsets. This requires a dedicated agency that can develop effective controls to meet these threats. In addition, a separate entity that is not under one branch means that the techniques and tools developed could immediately be deployed everywhere and anywhere they’re needed—even the civilian sector—instead of just towards a service-specific command.

If structured correctly and staffed with the right people, a U.S Cyber Force could be an efficient “incubator of innovation” that would be able to rapidly deploy offensive and defensive capabilities in order to regain America’s dominance in the cyber domain. Other nations have already recognized this threat, and are far ahead of us in the fight. One of Trump’s favorite countries, Norway, established a Cyber Defense Force back in 2012.  

Despite the lack of mission, I’m certain that, with the right leadership and vision, the Space Force will evolve into a critical component of our military. Yet there is no disputing the vital need to retain control of our own computers. Our entire way of life is controlled by technology, and due to Trump’s obsession with keeping our cyber capabilities inadequate, our nation’s security is at immediate risk. An independent, technology-based branch might seem like a radical idea, but it’s necessary.

If Trump can create a military branch just to score points with his base, then the next president needs to demand one that will actually save us.

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