Report: Defense Department Might Shutter Cyber Warfare Unit Before Launch

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The Pentagon this week delayed and may kill the Air Force's nascent Cyberspace Command, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. This comes as Russia used a major computer network attack to begin its assault on Georgia.

The service's Cyberspace Command is meant to coordinate computer network defense and, more controversially, offensive attacks on enemy networks. The goal, according to senior officials, is to be able to take control of adversary computer networks to thwart attacks or otherwise influence their behavior-- either with or without that adversary realizing it.

The Russian computer takedown served the same purpose as a traditional air attack on enemy radars and communications antennae, said Michael Wynne, the former U.S. Air Force Secretary who made cyberwar a central mission of the Air Force.

"The Russians just shot down the government command nets so they could cover their incursion," said Wynne. "This was really one of the first aspects of a coordinated military action that had cyber as a lead force, instead of sending in air planes. We need to figure out a way not only see the attack coming but to block it, and in blocking it chase it home."

"I think this is a very poor time to send a signal that the United States is not interested in focusing on warfighting in the cyber domain," Wynne added.

Wynne was fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year after the Air Force's mishandling of nuclear weapons. Wynne, however, told reporters he was fired over differences with Gates on the need for additional F-22 fighter jets, among other matters.

In a memo distributed throughout the Air Force this week, service officials announced that manning and budget transfers for Air Force Cyberspace Command have been suspended, delaying the command's official Oct. 1 start. The Pentagon and the Air Force are expected to make a decision as to the command's fate later this month. The command is temporarily based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La, and will eventually have a headquarters staff of about 500 people, and 8,000 personnel total.

The Air Force considers cyberspace a "domain" for which the service should train and equip forces to defend, as it does airspace. There are about 3 million attempted penetrations of Defense Department networks every day, according to the Air Force.

A senior military commander told the AP, however, that the mission to defend U.S. military networks is better vested in U.S. Strategic Command, which has the military responsibility for cyberspace across all services and commands.

Russia's use of computer tools to blind Georgia may not be the first time it has flexed its cyber powers for geopolitical purposes. In the spring of 2007, Estonian government, financial and media Web sites were incapacitated by a massive denial of service attack for which many in that country blamed Russia. The attack, involving a million computers in 75 countries, coincided with controversy over Estonia's plans to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial.

According to an August "for official use only" intelligence report by the Homeland Security Department, obtained by The Associated Press, there are no effective means to prevent a similar attack on U.S. Web sites connected to the Internet.