BIDLACK | ‘Perhaps it’s time for a separate Cyber Force?’

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 24, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

I pulled my first alert – as going out to an intercontinental ballistic missile site for a 24-hour tour is called – in the early Fall of 1981. A freshly minted second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, I had finished my “tech school” at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California a few weeks earlier. In that training environment, I was first exposed to the three big elements of being a missile launch officer: weapons system controls, codes, and EWO. Remember, the military loves funny names for things. In plain English, those terms mean the mechanics of operating and controlling the missile systems themselves, while “codes” has to do with how important information is secured within the system, and EWO stands for “emergency war orders,” or more simply put, the top-secret stuff having to do with going to war. Heady stuff to be sure.

I remember that first alert, now 37 years ago, very clearly. Up in Cheyenne, at F.E. Warren AFB, all 20 2-man crews (I served on crew in the years before women were allowed. Today, those are two-“person” crews, as they should be) heading out for alert that day would meet in what we simply called “Pre-D” for “pre-departure briefings.” In Pre-D, we were briefed on a variety of things. We collected our gear and drove miles out to our Launch Control Center, a fenced area of an acre or so, with a topside building and far more underground. A loud and clunky freight-type elevator takes you down into the bedrock of Wyoming, Colorado, or Nebraska, depending on which site you were entering, and engaged in a series of inspections and procedures that would ultimately allow your crew to relieve the two guys that had been there the previous 24 hours. After changeover, each crew member – the commander and the deputy commander – conducted a series of tests to ensure that your weapons, capable of wiping out all life over vast areas, were functioning perfectly – for perfection was our standard.

Even now, nearly 4 decades later, there is much I cannot tell you about what we did and how we did it. I was a Cold Warrior, ultimately commanding nuclear weapons sites to deter our adversaries with devastating and overwhelming power. Our missiles were targeted at potential enemies, and I remember often thinking proudly, while staring at our control panels, that I was defending America right then and there. It was a good feeling. I was a proud member of the United States Air Force, at the pointy end of the spear, albeit deep underground.

Why am I telling you all this? Because times change.  Today, our adversaries are unlikely to challenge us directly with nukes, as we are simply too powerful. Remember that Russia, for all its boasting, is still not very powerful in terms of traditional military power. And so, they are far more likely to use the weapons of the 21stCentury, and I’m not talking about a “Space Force” as President Trump has called for. No, the battlefield I believe to be the most pressing is the world of cyber. Computers today may well pose a greater threat to the United States than any Russian or Chinese missile. If we really think we need an entirely new military service, I posit that it shouldn’t be a Space Force, but rather a Cyber Force.

If you doubt the power of cyber, I suggest a quick google of the term “Stuxnet” and how a computer virus was able to penetrate the Iranian nuclear weapons program and essentially compel the centrifuges being used to purify nuclear weapons fuel to spin wildly out of control to the point of self-destruction.

While many worry about Russian cyber penetrations of our voting system (a very important issue, to be sure) and of our social media, I also worry about rogue nations and other bad guys using cyber weapons to attack water pumping stations, oil pipelines, and other critical infrastructure.

My weapon system stood about 60 feet tall and carried total destruction within its shroud. Today’s weapons may well look like keyboards. But the threat is no less real. You don’t have to read too much Clausewitz to understand that the goal in war is render an enemy unable to fight. In my day, that largely meant big bombs. Today, it can be little more than keystrokes.

We must remain able to defend our nation against all threats, but we ignore the clatter of typing fingers at our peril. Perhaps it’s time for a separate Cyber Force?

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.