AFCYBER vs. Cyber-Hollywood: Why we need cyber dominance

by Capt. Rob Goza
8th Air Force Public Affairs

4/15/2008 — BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFPN) — America's Airmen are working hard to put Bruce Willis's fictional action hero, Detective John McClane, out of work.
In the movie "Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard," an evil hacker uses cyberspace against an Air Force fighter pilot in an Air Force F-35B Lightning II, manipulating the pilot to attack the main character, played by Bruce Willis.

Air Force Illustration by Tech. Sgt. Christopher DeWitt In the film, a fighter plane that isn't yet a part of the United States' arsenal literally hunts the main character through a heavily populated city by hovering in the "Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing" mode.

The scenario of a fighter jet attacking a ground target in a major U.S. city (presumably during an Operation Noble Eagle mission launched to help counter the multiple-front "cyber-terrorist attack" conducted primarily through manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum), utilizing a hover mode that probably relies more on movie magic than actual operational capabilities, might make Air Force experts wince.

But the concept of the United States' enemies using the electromagnetic spectrum against its forces, turning its own firepower against them, is more than real.
While the "Hollywood" approach sacrifices some technical accuracy, it does an exceptional job of vividly communicating the threat of a worst-case cyber-attack scenario. The movie, which refers to the cyber-attack as a "fire sale" approach that targets the nation's military, utilities, transportation, finance and communications systems, shows a dramatized version of what might happen if the United States' most powerful weapons were turned against it by a supremely savvy cyber-opponent.

For old-school movie aficionados, the F-35 sequence could be described as an extreme version of the airplane chase in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," where Jimmy Stewart dodges death - coincidentally, Stewart was an Air Force bomber pilot who served in Eighth Air Force, the numbered air force responsible for the cyber-warfighting mission to "train, equip and provide forces to combatant commanders."

A good example a cyber-savvy adversary appears at least as far back as the Vietnam War. In Ronald H. Spector's Vietnam War history, "After Tet," he describes the Viet Cong frequently employing knowledge of U.S. communications procedures to enter the radio net and redirect U.S. artillery fire or air strikes. A perfect example of a cyber-savvy opponent manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum against United States airpower, and eerily similar to the F-35 scene in "Die Hard 4."

By "hacking" access to U.S. military radio communications networks using captured or improvised radio equipment, and using classic "social engineering" techniques of employing radio operators whose understanding of U.S. radio terminology and fluency in American English was so proficient that they could convincingly call on U.S. airpower and artillery to fire on friendly forces.

The point of each of these examples is that even the most incredible aircraft, capable of delivering combat power that is truly unprecedented in the history of the modern world, can be defeated and even turned against friendly forces if the United States fails to maintain control of cyberspace as a warfighting domain. Cyberspace dominance is the key, ensuring the United States military is able to use cyberspace and to prevent the enemy from using it.

The solution is not Bruce Willis' action hero, John McClane, no matter how cool that might seem. Instead, the solution is actually even cooler: the Airmen serving in the Air Force's newest major command, Air Force Cyberspace Command, who carry out their mission to "fly, fight and win in Air, Space, and Cyberspace.