SpaceX, the plucky little rocket company with unearthly ambition, is trying to become the first American firm in decades to routinely launch large commercial satellites into orbit. And they're about to have their first trial.
If SpaceX succeeds, it's a giant win for all sorts of U.S. technology interests. If they fail, the world is back to relying on the French and the Russians to get their spacecraft in orbit.
It won't be easy. Big commercial satellites are tough to launch. They need to go to geostationary orbit, about 22,000 miles up, and travel fast enough to keep the orbit stable (the International Space Station is only about 250 miles up in low Earth orbit). The advantage is that, to an observer on Earth, the satellite always stays in the same place -- the antenna will always point in the same direction, making it easy use. We use those satellites daily for all kinds of information: Local television stations get feeds from host networks, ATM withdrawals get approval from banks, people on ships or in distant areas use them to speak with one another. To get way out to geostationary orbit, you need a big, expensive rocket, so to get the most bang for their buck the relevant companies make ever-larger, heavier, more capable satellites. The only U.S. company currently capable of such launches is United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has long since priced itself out of the market.
The commercial space business is hugely important. First, rockets use essentially the same technology as missiles (some are, literally, repurposed ICBMs), hence the nervousness surrounding North Korean and Iranian space programs. They are also vital to keeping high-technology business and R&D going, including associated university programs, think tanks, etc. (Think of the U.S. commercial aerospace sector without Boeing.) Finally, space really is the final frontier, and it's generally thought that being better at space launch makes everything related to space that much easier. The government can only afford to support so much of this on its budget; to ease the strain, the United States needs a commercial industry.
For years, SpaceX has been building up to a huge checkpoint: commercial success. Next week's launch (delayed from this week and several times before) will finally determine whether America gets back into the commercial space business, or fails yet again.
How did we get here?
Back in the 1970s, the United States had a virtual monopoly on commercial satellite launches, flying Titan, Atlas, and Delta rockets for satellite communication and television companies. But space launch capabilities are as strategic an industry as ever was, and competition is inevitable. The French Ariane series began launching at the end of that decade, and increasingly capable versions quickly took market share from U.S. companies. Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union really opened up the market: The Soviets had some of the best rockets in the world, and the rapacious capitalism that gripped the new Russia quickly turned quasi-military programs into very affordable commercial launch vehicles.
To compete, the United States turned to Lockheed and Boeing for substantial updates of their Atlas and Delta systems. The resulting Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), the Atlas V and Delta IV, were to compete on the open market, and the U.S. government would reap the benefits of mass production. Demand for commercial satellites was set to explode, brought about by a huge demand for satellite telephone, television, and data services. But that market never really took off; cheap cell phones killed the satphone business, and fiber optic cables kept demand for satellite TV in check. Increasingly strict technology export regulations made information-sharing immensely difficult. A series of sketchy incidents led Boeing and Lockheed to join forces in the form of United Launch Alliance (ULA), ending the realistic idea of domestic competition. With huge cost overruns and without being able to amortize over many launches, the EELVs became increasingly expensive, essentially pricing themselves out of commercial markets altogether, leaving them wholly reliant on a monopoly over U.S. government launches. The U.S. market share for large commercial launches fell from near-monopoly to near-irrelevance.
Enter Elon Musk, the entrepreneur tuned Internet billionaire. Musk started with a simple goal, and the funds to pull it off: Get humans off the Earth and on Mars. Initially he hoped to use Russian rockets, but after long negotiations with the Russians, the costs were still unacceptable. So he began his own company, SpaceX, in 2000. Despite some failures -- virtually inevitable in the industry -- the company has moved at breathtaking speed using the simple philosophy of standardizing everything, building everything in-house, and pushing rocket components out at a furious rate. (For example, the Falcon 9 first stage uses nine engines where similar rockets use one. SpaceX can build an unheard-of 40 engines a year.) The company is deeply involved with reusability, a holy grail with the potential to drastically reduce launch costs. The idea is to build a commercially viable business, and use that money to fund ever-larger and ever-cheaper rockets, culminating in landing crewed missions on Mars.
Tuesday -- or whenever they launch, delays are common -- will be the first big test of that strategy, SpaceX's first launch up to geostationary orbit. SpaceX has around 40 commercial launches on backlog, a big number by any standard, enough to keep them occupied for years. But the company's record is mixed: There is no work of fiction like a future launch schedule, and customers that rely on regularly replacing old satellites will only tolerate so many of the multi-year delays that SpaceX has repeatedly introduced.
While Tuesday's launch will technically be the sixth Falcon 9 launch, it is only the second of the v1.1 rocket, which incorporates such substantial modifications to the fuel tanks and fuel supply systems that it is in many ways a new rocket. The risks -- and thus insurance costs -- of launching on a new rocket are huge, and of course nobody will want to fly on a rocket that doesn't work (as is standard, many SpaceX customers have scheduled backup launches with other companies). It also marks the first launch from the Cape Canaveral, Florida pad, which must work exactly as predicted.
Launching into space is difficult enough that engineers and enthusiasts hold their breath for every single launch, and even the most reliable rockets have had unexpected failures; most space launch companies have lost rockets and destroyed the payloads, some of them repeatedly. Tuesday's launch will be a very risky one, and certainly one to watch.
In June, the Chinese military received the first of its new, long-range bombers, the Hongzha-6K. It's an upgraded model of the twin-engine plane the Chinese have used for decades, but has some significant new bells and whistles - most notably the likely ability to carry cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
The bomber is among the ground likely to be covered at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday as members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission testify about their annual report. It warns that the Chinese are "rapidly expanding and diversifying" their ability to strike U.S. bases, ships and aircraft throughout to the Pacific, including those in places like Guam that were previously out of reach. The report's release comes as the U.S. simultaneously increases the frequency with which it interacts with the Chinese military, and blasts the country for hacking into U.S. computer networks to steal secrets.
The commission's report strikes a balance between sounding the alarm on China's ambitions and recommending continued cooperation on issues of common interest. But it warns about China's rise in stark terms, saying the country has become increasingly aggressive in the way it handles long-standing issues with the Philippines, Japan and other nations.
"Although sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas are not new, China's growing diplomatic, economic, and military clout is improving China's ability to assert its interests," it says. "It is increasingly clear that China does not intend to resolve the disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes but instead will use its growing power in support of coercive tactics that pressure its neighbors to concede to China's claims."
AFP/ Getty Images
In the past few weeks, the Pentagon and its major contractors have been trotting out their designs for the aircraft of the future -- from a stealthy, hypersonic spy plane to a combat, carrier-hopping drone to a futuristic bomber. But ironically, none of these planes will likely define the U.S. armed forces of, say, 2030. It's the wild weapons they'll carry that could be military game-changers.
The crown jewel is the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), being designed under tight secrecy. LRS-B is supposed to replace either the B-52 or B-1 or some combination thereof (nobody's quite sure yet). Designed for penetrating strike and nuclear weapons, it is this bomber that is meant to lead any bombing campaign, slipping into enemy airspace undetected and dropping bombs on the most heavily-defended targets. Northrop Grumman (which designed the B-2) and a Boeing-Lockheed team are both designing competitors, but details are scarce -- nearly everything about the program is classified.
The F-35, currently under production, is supposed to become the backbone of the USAF fleet. By 2030 the oldest operational aircraft will have a decade in service, and new versions might still be rolling out of the factory. It's designed to be the new catch-all, a performer of all but master of none. But as the most modern aircraft on the production line it can do things its predecessors can't, and it shows how the USAF is changing the way it fights.
The F-35 is stealthy, but it's not that stealthy. It won't be able to dip into enemy airspace unnoticed like the LRS-B will, so the focus is how to make it more effective from further away. The radar is designed to share detailed targeting information via datalink with other aircraft -- one F-35 can hang back and turn on its radar, which gives its position away to the target but keeps it far from danger, while another can sneak in and fire a missile without giving itself away.
More and more, those missiles are going to be smarter and capable of new things, not just blowing things up. Rather than risk people and valuable airplanes, why not just let the missile do the work? It's getting easier to pack missiles full of fuel and electronics, making them more like miniature drones than the old dumb-bombs. Some missiles, like Raytheon's new MALD-J, contain small radar jammers and can be fired almost 600 miles from the target.
Future versions could have electronic surveillance equipment, sending data back home, or even the means to inject viruses into computer networks. Also look forward to things like the Israeli IAI Harop, a hybrid missile/UAV that can circle overhead for long periods of time, waiting for a whiff of electronic scent and guiding itself in.
One promising development is the High-Speed Strike Weapon, a hypersonic ground attack missile, capable of launching from thousands of miles away and streaking towards the target too fast for anyone to hit. At least, that's the idea. At that speed it might not even need a warhead, destroying targets with sheer kinetic energy. The program is in its infancy, and sustained hypersonic flight is very tough -- but we'll see. Come 2030 there could be B-52s -- among the oldest aircraft in the inventory -- launching hypersonic cruise missiles by the dozen.
And what of the drones used so widely today? After Afghanistan winds down there will certainly not be a need for as many as we now have. But a potential Predator replacement, the MQ-X, is dead in the water, and while the USAF is closely watching the Navy's experiments with the X-47B carrier-hopping drone, there are no concrete plans to buy anything at the moment. But it's hard to imagine they wouldn't put those new capabilities onto UAVs, and indeed there are persistent rumors of secret bomb-carrying UAVs flying in the desert, but nothing concrete and verifiable has yet emerged.
All of those are good ideas, but the potential costs are enormous, and in the days of sequestration few people have the stomach to promote gigantic programs. Even next year's budgets are uncertain, and between the Pentagon's five-year planning frames and the regular shifts of their political sponsors, nobody really knows what programs will make it to 2030. It could be all of them. It could be just one. We'll have to wait and see.
Pratt & Whitney turbofan whining, tires slamming on the steel deck in puffs of white smoke, the X-47B killer drone prototype arrived on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on Nov. 9.
Over the next several days the kite-shaped X-47B launched, landed and taxied in increasingly complex wind conditions, racking up test data and bringing the Navy closer to deploying the world's first jet-powered robotic bombers.
Lots more tests are still to come.
1,092 feet long and displacing 104,600 tons of water, the 29-year-old, nuclear-powered Roosevelt is the third of the Navy's 10 flattops to test the pair of X-47B drones that Northrop Grumman built under a roughly billion-dollar contract starting in 2007.
After six years of design, production and ground testing, the pair of 62-foot-wingspan drones -- known to the Navy as "Salty Dogs" and to Northrop engineers as "Doritos" -- took to the sea in December 2012.
First one of the Doritos was lifted by crane onto the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman in Norfolk, Virginia, to test its ability to maneuver around the ship's five-acre flight deck, remotely controlled by a sailor with a wrist-mounted joystick.
In May a Dorito blasted into the air from the USS George H.W. Bush off of Maryland, boosted by the flattop's steam-powered catapult. And in July one of the 22-ton drones landed autonomously, snagging one of Bush's arrestor cables in an historic first.
Preserving the Doritos
The current trials aboard Roosevelt near the east coast involve steering the ship into more complicated wind conditions -- faster and off-center -- in order to ensure the X-47B's software can still safely launch and land the robot. "At this point it's a big science project," says one contractor on board the flattop for the tests.
Much more testing remains before the Doritos can retire and the Navy replaces them with fully combat-capable drones sometime around 2020. Northrop, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Atomics are vying for that contract.
The Navy had planned to decommission the X-47Bs following the July launches, but decided at the last minute that it would be better to keep testing the ‘bots in order to ease the transition to the combat-ready drone.
A Navy briefing slide obtained by War is Boring this summer plots out another two years of rigorous trials for the two Doritos. After the current trials aboard Bush, an X-47B will embark on the USS Harry S. Truman in late 2014 and another, as yet unspecified flattop for a final series of experiments in 2015.
By then Northrop and the Navy expect to have checked off several other important achievements: programming the X-47Bs to autonomously refuel in mid-air and also blending one of the drones into a full air wing of 70 or more manned planes and helicopters.
"The Navy remains steadfast in its commitment to maturing today's technologies," said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, promising "a realistic path to tomorrow's affordable, flexible unmanned carrier aviation capabilities."
But for now, prepping the fleet for combat-ready killer drones is all a big science project.
The U.S. military began providing humanitarian assistance in the Philippines on Sunday following a monstrous typhoon that leveled much of the country Friday and possibly killed more than 10,000 people, according to the latest estimates. The storm affected more than 4.2 million people across 36 provinces in the southeastern Asian nation, U.S. officials said.
How will the U.S. help, though? Here's a primer, based on announced deployments and previous disaster relief efforts.
Command unit: The first conventional U.S. forces on the ground were U.S. Marines, who flew from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Japan on Sunday in KC-130J Hercules planes. They are commanded by Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, a seasoned infantry officer who, ironically enough, led the service's public affairs division at the Pentagon until a few months ago. Kennedy's team is "continuously assessing the situation along with the Government and Armed Forces of the Philippines to determine how to best make use of personnel and resources," Marine officials said in a news release Monday.
The U.S. military has named Lt. Gen. Terry Robling as the "executive agent" for the operation. He commands Marine Corps Forces Pacific from Hawaii, and will likely be in close consultation with Kennedy and his staff. The initial focus will be providing maritime search and rescue missions, moving food, water and other supplies, and setting up logistical support to make the mission easier.
KC-130J planes: The initial group of Marines arrived Sunday in one of the workhorse aircraft of the U.S. military. They are capable of refueling smaller aircraft, including MV-22B Osprey and CH-53E helicopters, and carrying a variety of troops and supplies.
The military already has deployed at least five KC-130Js in support of the mission. On Monday, they assisted in delivering 38,000 pounds of relief supplies provide by the Philippine government, and transported 210 aid workers, Marine officials said. The Marines expected to assist on Tuesday with receiving humanitarian assistance supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and assisting with the transport of people stranded in typhoon-ravaged areas.
MV-22B Ospreys: The Marine Corps has deployed at least four of the revolutionary tilt-rotor aircraft to the Philippines, providing an aircraft that can carry civilians and military forces and supplies quickly and into areas where runways are not available. The aircraft's design allow it to take off like a helicopter, but fly like an airplane once higher in the air.
P-3 Orion planes: The Navy quickly deployed two of these turboprop aircraft from Misawa, Japan, where personnel operating them were on a six-month rotational assignment in support of the Navy's 7th Fleet. The aircraft are capable of performing search-and-rescue missions, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The George Washington: This aircraft carrier was in Hong Kong when the storm hit the Philippines, carrying about 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft aboard. Its crew were recalled early from their shore leave, and began making "best speed" for the Philippines Monday night, Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement. It is expected to be off the coast of the Philippines within two or three days. It provided some aid in Japan following the devastating earthquake there in 2011, but was forced to leave early when its personnel detected radiation in the air from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The cruisers Antietam and Cowpens: These ships are among those that will escort the George Washington. They'll provide security for the aircraft carrier, but also carry helicopters and supplies that could prove helpful in the Philippines. The Cowpens also was involved in the U.S. military's 2011 Japan relief mission.
The destroyer Mustin: This ship also will provide security for the George Washington, while serving as a landing site for helicopters. In 2011, it was involved in both earthquake relief in Japan and humanitarian assistance in Thailand, following widespread flooding during the country's monsoon season.
The supply ship Charles Drew: This is one of Military Sealift Command's noncombatant ships, carrying minimal weaponry while moving cargo and supplies for the U.S. military. This ship is manned primarily by civilian mariners, with a handful of U.S. sailors also typically on board. It also has space to land helicopters, most commonly the Navy's MH-60.
Carrier Air Wing Five: This unit is deployed aboard the George Washington and its accompanying ships, comprising about 1,900 sailors and 67 aircraft, the Navy said in a news release in September. It includes F/A-18F Super Hornets, F/A-18E Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E-2C Hawkeyes, C-2A Greyhounds, and MH-60S and MH-60R Seahawk helicopters.
The fighter jets' ability to assist in the Philippines may be limited, but the helicopters will almost certainly receive heavy work. The Hawkeyes and Greyhounds also will be able to provide support on the ground, as cargo planes capable of ferrying passengers and cargo to and from the shore.
If previous large-scale humanitarian assistance missions are any indication, the U.S. military could be in the Philippines for weeks, if not longer. It will all depend on how quickly conditions improve -- and how long the Philippine government welcomes help.
Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images
Late last month, the future of spaceflight -- a mini-space shuttle dubbed the Dream Chaser -- made its first unpowered glide-flight. It was highly successful, at least until it touched down on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base and promptly flipped over onto its back.
Ignominious start though it may be, it's just the beginning. Designer Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to quickly repair the vehicle and fly it again. A second Dream Chaser is under construction.
The Dream Chaser has an airplane-like "lifting" body. That means it can reenter the atmosphere relatively slowly in comparison to traditional capsules, and can glide to a graceful landing rather than plummet down to Earth. No lifting bodies have been used before on operational flights and testing was rare, which makes it a riskier than approach capsules. While the space shuttle's wings generated some lift, the fuselage (as in most aircraft) was aerodynamic deadweight, so it had a poor glide ratio and fast atmospheric re-entry.
But the idea has been around a long time, and Sierra Nevada is taking the least-risky option for such a craft: Dream Chaser is an exact replica of an earlier design ground-tested by NASA, so the company has plenty of wind tunnel data. The NASA design is itself a copy of a Soviet lifting body that flew a handful of times in testing.
Dream Chaser and two other vehicles -- the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 capsules -- are being built largely by government funds through NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) program, which has dished out just over $1 billion to date in an attempt to build a crewed, reusable spacecraft. In many ways, this is a situation that closely parallels the state of aviation in the 1920s, when government funding kept commercial airmail services viable and wealthy individuals paid to test the boundaries.
Much like aviation during that time, access to space is about to get much easier. Satellites are getting smaller and cheaper with the maturing of satellites the size of shoeboxes or smaller (CubeSats, nanosats, picosats, and the like) such that even small colleges can afford to send satellites into orbit. One group even launched the electronic guts of a cellphone into orbit as an experiment (it worked). Such small satellites allow previously unheard-of funders: wealthy individuals, small groups, and Kickstarter can now put satellites into space.
Lockheed Martin revealed a planned successor to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird. Except this SR-72 will be a drone, will fly nearly twice as fast as the Blackbird and be capable of carrying weapons. And that will make it the most exotic airplane ever constructed.
If it gets constructed, that is. According to Aviation Week's Guy Norris, the detailed design has been ongoing for years in cooperation with engine builder Aerojet Rocketdyne, but whether it actually gets built is still up in the air.
Hypersonic demonstrators to date have all been powered to speed by rocket boosters, including the same massive rockets used to launch satellites into space. The new design is closely based on the canceled HTV-3X Blackswift, an ambitious proposal to build a plane capable of taking off from a regular runway like a regular aircraft, accelerate to speed and stay there, then land as normal. It's harder than it sounds, and though Lockheed says it has solved one of the trickier problems - transitioning the engine from slow to supersonic to hypersonic flight - the company declines to say how. Other issues, including dealing with the considerable heat generated at hypersonic speeds, are still up in the air. Lockheed says a smaller, single-engine, optionally-manned demonstrator aircraft would precede building the SR-72.
Hypersonic flight is so difficult that all of humanity's accumulated hypersonic flight time is measured in minutes. It is so unique that each new attempt, including those that fail, is considered a successful experiment. The SR-71 flew at high supersonic speeds, which required several strokes of engineering genius.
Networks of unmanned submarines. Subsonic cruise missiles with intercontinental range. Radios powered by decaying plutonium. Those are just a few of the technologies that the Pentagon's top scientific advisory panel wants to see in troops' hands by 2030.
Most of the technology already exists in some form, largely experimental or conceptual. Networked unmanned submarines is not a new idea - defense companies will happily sell you one of a dozen unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), the key is to make them bigger, more advanced, and digitally tie them together instead of sending them off one at a time on short-range missions. Likewise, cruise missiles already exist, but tripling their range would allow a ship in Norfolk harbor to strike targets off Alaska. Plutonium-powered electronics are occasionally used by NASA to power spacecraft on long-distance missions, but nobody's bothered to build them in quantity.
Moving troops faster is another crucial action where technology efforts are already ongoing. The Army is running the Future Vertical Lift program to find replacements for the aging traditional helicopters it uses now. Four contenders have stepped forward using more effective versions of tiltrotors like Bell's V-280 and pusher-propellers like Sikorsky's S-97. A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program has begun to search for something brand-new, that can fly more efficiently than an aircraft and hover more efficiently than a helicopter, dramatically increasing range and speed. But even that's not enough for the Defense Science Board. In a recently-released report (.pdf), panelists say that they want to build on those concepts, doubling the range and speed of those still-notional projects.
The anonymous, acerbic tweeter who went by the handle @NatSecWonk was a White House staffer on the verge of being named to a leading Pentagon position before he was fired last week for his nasty, sneering online identity. Now, onetime National Security Council (NSC) staffer Jofi Joseph is under investigation by the Justice Department for his alleged social media activities -- both as @NatSecWonk and also possibly as @DCHobbyist, a Twitter account devoted largely to the exploits of North American escorts.
Joseph possessed the kind of résumé that had put him on a Washington fast track. But he was abruptly dismissed last week after administration officials confronted him with evidence that he was the man behind @NatSecWonk. That Twitter handle, well-known to people in Washington's national security circles, relished sniping at government officials, politicians, reporters, and anyone else in his field of digital fire. But FP has also learned that Joseph is suspected of being the man behind a different Twitter handle, @DCHobbyist, which spouts spicy talk about sex and prostitutes peppered among tweets on the Washington Nationals and bike commuting. On Oct. 7, @DCHobbyist tweeted about Toronto's "tsunami of gorgeous and sensual escorts." Three days later, he tweeted at @MsBellaAngeline, the Twitter account associated with Isabella Angeline, who advertises herself online as a "luxury companion and escort."
He wrote, "I hope you know that I reminisce fondly about our date. Do let me know if you ever find your way back to DC."
Naturally, the tweets themselves are not illegal. But when administration officials realized Joseph was also behind them, they raised questions about Joseph, who is married to a respected Senate staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Carolyn Leddy. Openly interacting with escorts can be a security risk; for a married and well-placed official, it can easily lead to blackmail and worse. The fact that @DCHobbyist appeared to be so brazenly engaged in such activities raised red flags about Joseph's state of mind. One individual briefed on the matter told FP that based on the two Twitter handles, Joseph's case was referred to the Department of Justice to determine whether any of the information leaked by @NatSecWonk or the "behavior" of @DCHobbyist amounted to criminal acts that would put in jeopardy Joseph's security clearance. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee officials are trying to determine if anything Joseph posted had represented classified information provided to him by Leddy.
The Navy's newest warships are hard to detect on radar, heavily armed with super-accurate guns and missiles ... and gigantic. Six hundred feet long and displacing 15,000 tons of water, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class ships are designated as destroyers but are actually as big as some World War I battleships.
The lead ship in the class is slated to launch any day now -- a milestone briefly delayed by the recent government shutdown. The Navy is building three of the Zumwalts over the next five years and deploying them to the Pacific to counter China's fast-improving military.
That's assuming the $7-billion-apiece Zumwalts don't simply capsize the first time a powerful wave strikes them from behind. The high-tech battleships feature a novel, downward-sloping "tumblehome" hull that's optimized for stealth not stability -- and lacks the wave-resisting qualities of traditional ships with upward-flaring hulls.
"On the DDG-1000, with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water-and basically roll over," naval architect Ken Brower told Defense News.
Even if they don't sink in heavy seas, the Zumwalts are controversial vessels. Besides being by far the biggest and most expensive surface combatants in memory, the Zumwalts are actually inferior to older, smaller ships in certain key stats, in particular radar performance and missile capacity.
But what they lack in weapons and sensors, the new battleships make up for with other enhancements, including space for their own robotic air forces plus massive electrical output that, in the near future, could support powerful laser weapons.
Bath Iron Works
Kevin Mandia, CEO of the cybersecurity company Mandiant, takes a lot of limo rides. Normally, his limo company emails him PDF copies of his invoices after every trip. Recently, though, something changed.
"I've been receiving PDF invoices not from them, but from an [advanced hacking] group back in China; that's awesome," said Mandia in D.C. recently. He only caught the attack when the hackers sent receipts on days when he hadn't used the car service. "I forwarded them to our security service, and they said, 'Yup, that's got a [malicious] payload.'"
Emailing a malicious file from a fake or hijacked email account belonging to the acquaintance of a hacker's target is a famous cyber-espionage tactic called spearphishing.
Hackers often search Google or social media to find the names of their target's friends and co-workers. They then create a fake email address in the name of a friend or coworker and fire off carefully written emails containing malware to their target.
Mandiant's digital networks are routinely attacked by Chinese hackers. This is no surprise given that last February the firm published a detailed report of Chinese military intelligence groups attacking the computers of Western businesses. But what makes this attack on Mandiant different -- and what makes it a warning to other American businesses -- is the intimate knowledge that the hackers seemed to have about Mandia's business. How did these Chinese hackers know which limo service the CEO uses?
"I don't know; that makes me wonder," Mandia told Foreign Policy.
The Pentagon just made its biggest investment yet into a project to build new satellites in space by reusing the parts of dead satellites.
The Defense Department relies on satellites to do everything from passing secret messages around the globe to giving troops navigation information and intelligence. The problem is, getting brand-new satellites into space can be an incredibly expensive and time-consuming effort.
To remedy this, the Pentagon wants to harvest parts from the roughly $300 billion worth of dead satellites that sit in a heavenly "graveyard or disposal orbit" and use their spare parts to build new ones, Frankenstein style, under a project called Phoenix. A roughly $40 million Phoenix contract was handed out earlier this week to a California company called NovaWurks.
While the Pentagon says the tech being developed for Phoenix is meant to save money, tech that allows a satellite to tear an old satellite apart could just as easily be used to attack a new one.
If you think any of this sounds far-fetched, it's worth noting that China is suspected to have used a satellite to grab at least one other in space last week. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force's secret X-37B robot space plane is believed by many to be used to get up close and personal with orbiting satellites. The X-37B stays aloft for months at a time, and amateur satellite trackers have seen it dramatically changing its orbits in space. Such maneuvers could point to the craft cozying up to various foreign satellites with the purpose of spying on them, according to some observers.
"The Phoenix program envisions developing a new class of small 'Satlets', or nano-satellites," which could be launched as "a 'ride along' on a commercial satellite launch, and then attached to the antenna of a non-operational cooperating satellite robotically, essentially creating a new" satellite, reads a 2011 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announcement.
To do this, a separate "tender" or "satellite-servicing spacecraft" will be built and launched into space, where it will meet up with the commercial spacecraft carrying the Satlets. This tender will use "grasping mechanical arms for removing the Satlets and components" from the box the Satlets were carried inside. The tender will then use "unique robotic tools to be developed in the program" to find an old satellite, scavenge parts from it, and attach them to the Satlet. (Check out the video at the end of this piece for a demo of the robot claws that are being developed for the Phoenix satellites.)
Imagine a day in the not too distant future when American commandos won't have to pull back in the face of enemy fire as they did in Somalia this weekend. Instead, they'll wear armor that allows them to literally walk through a hail of AK-47 fire and snatch their target away. Who will need drones when you can snatch a guy off the street with minimal risk of U.S. casualties?
This scene, straight out of a sci-fi movie, might be real someday soon -- if U.S. Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven has his way.
The nation's top SEAL last month asked defense for technology to build a suit of armor, called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), that does everything from provide the wearer with night vision and superhuman strength to protecting them from gunfire.
"I'm very committed to this, I'd like that last operator that we lost to be the last operator we lose in this fight or the fight of the future, and I think we can get there," McRaven told dozens of industry representatives gathered at SOCOM headquarters in Tampa Fla. last July to discuss the creation of this supersuit.
The "requirement is a comprehensive family of systems in a combat armor suit where we bring together an exoskeleton with innovative armor, displays for power monitoring, health monitoring, and integrating a weapon into that -- a whole bunch of stuff" that the Army is conducting research into, Lt. Col. Karl Borjes, an Army science advisor assigned to SOCOM, said in a press release.
In fact, the suit will likely feature liquid body armor being developed at MIT "that transforms from liquid to solid in milliseconds when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied," according to the press release.
US Army, SOCOM
You might think that Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, would be looking to lower his agency's profile after a stream of embarrassing leaks about its surveillance activities. Instead, he's doubling down, asking for new powers to secure the U.S. financial industry -- and using some rather suspect arguments to support his demands.
In public remarks in Washington on Tuesday, Alexander said that eventually, and likely in the midst of a crisis, policymakers will have to decide under what conditions the NSA can take action to stop a major cyberattack on U.S. businesses or critical sectors of the economy.
"That's where we're going to end up at some point," he said. Using the financial services sector as an example, Alexander said, "You have to have the rules set up so you can defend Wall Street."
Drawing an analogy to how the military detects an incoming missile with radar and other sensors, Alexander imagined the NSA being able to spot "a cyberpacket that's about to destroy Wall Street." In an ideal world, he said, the agency would be getting real-time information from the banks themselves, as well as from the NSA's traditional channels of intelligence, and have the power to take action before a cyberattack caused major damage.
The analogy was a stretch.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images News
In the not-so-distant future, U.S. special operators, like
those who used
scuba gear boats and SUVs to go after terrorists this weekend,
may be carried into combat by quiet, ultra-fast helicopters that bear
only a passing resemblance to today's models.
The Army is trying to revolutionize a chopper fleet that hasn't changed all that much in the last 30 years. Four companies are trotting out designs to make it happen. One proposed aircraft looks like a minivan with rotors; another, like a V-22 Osprey tiltrotor on steroids. There's also sleek, stealthy-looking chopper. And the last resembles an awkward cross between a UH-60 Black Hawk and a V-22.
The Army last week signed "technology investment agreements" with the four firms -- a Bell-Lockheed Martin team, a Boeing-Sikorsky team, Karem Aircraft and AVX aviation -- to develop prototypes that will compete to be the basis for the ground service's light and medium-sized helicopters of the 21st Century.
For years, Army aviation leaders have been lamenting the fact that the service has not purchased a brand new helicopter design since the introduction of the AH-64 Apache in the 1980s. Besides the V-22 -- the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a helicopter by pivoting its giant engines skyward -- almost all of the choppers used by the U.S. military today are based on designs from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Service officials will tell you that this has led to a sort of stagnation in the state of military helicopter technology, especially when compared to the giant leaps ahead in technology the Air Force and Navy have seen with the advent of revolutionary stealth jets and drones.
To remedy this, the service has kicked off a long-term project called Joint Multirole (JMR) aimed at developing a radically new crop of choppers all based on a similar design that do everything from hunt bad guys to haul troops and cargo. The new choppers must be able to fly at least 265 miles per hour -- double the top speed of your average helicopter. They also have to be able to hover at altitudes of up to 6,000-feet in 95 degree temperature; a difficult feat for many helicopters. The choppers must also be quieter than today's helicopters. All four companies have nine months to flesh out their designs, after which, the Army will select two to be built and flying by 2018. The Army wants the new aircraft in service by 2030 or so.
Here's a look at each of the designs.
AVX, Karem Aviation, Sikorsky, Bell Helicopter
The Pentagon's inspector general has found 363 problems in the way Lockheed Martin and five other defense contractors build the Pentagon's primary fighter jet of the 21st century. Hundreds of production errors "could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost" of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to an IG report published today.
The flaws largely consist of the companies' failure to follow safety and quality control techniques while building the stealth fighter jets. Contractors failed to make sure that manufacturing spaces were clear of harmful debris or that glues used to hold parts of the jets together had not passed their expiration dates. Instructions telling workers how to install parts on the airplane were incorrect.
These production flaws likely contributed to each jet in a recent batch of F-35s needing an average of 859 "quality action requests" before they were ready for delivery, according to the IG. This means that about 13 percent of all work done on a brand-new F-35 is "scrap, rework and repair" work to fix problems built into the planes, according the 126-page report.
"This was a wake-up call that we had to be more rigorous," Eric Branyan, Lockheed's F-35 vice president of program management, told Reuters. Branyan said the company plans to get the rework rate down to about 6 percent.
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison announced this week that his company will sell "in memory" databases, promising customers the power to analyze huge amounts of information at speeds 100 times faster than systems they're using now. This is news for Oracle. But the company is not the first denizen of big data to use this super-fast technology. That credit goes to the National Security Agency.
Beginning in 2004, the NSA took an important turn in its insatiable quest to store and manipulate huge amounts of data. The agency started storing intercepted e-mail, phone, and other communications traffic with in-memory databases, which were built using random access memory, or RAM. Up until that point, the NSA had used disk-based storage. Every piece of data the NSA collected was like a book, and the database on which it was stored was like a bookshelf. Whenever an analyst wanted that book, computers had to mechanically retrieve it. And at the scale the NSA was operating -- looking at hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of books at once, and cross-referencing them -- analysis of big data sets could take hours, or even days.
In-memory databases promised to change all that, because they stored and retrieved data at vastly greater speeds than a traditional system. In 2001, a group of researchers in Washington State had shown that an in-memory database could retrieve 30,000 individual records in one second; it took a traditional machine, using disk-based storage, 16 seconds. More impressive still, it took the in-memory system 2.5 seconds to "write," or store all those records in its memory. The traditional machine took almost an hour to perform that task.
In-memory databases were the secret ingredient that turned the NSA from a relatively slow user of big data into a high-speed information cruncher. The databases gave the NSA the ability to store and retrieve huge numbers of communications practically in real-time. This was an essential for an agency trying to spot the electronic data trials of terrorists at the time they made them, not days later.
In-memory databases are fairly common today. RAM also costs much less than it did in 2004. Oracle is actually somewhat late in selling the databases, trailing behind its competitor, SAP. (That's surprising since the Oracle founders got their big break thanks to a secret intelligence project for the CIA.)
But in 2004, in-memory databases were largely untested in a real-world environment, and they were too expensive for most companies. But fortunately for the NSA, it had practically limitless resources.
Most budget figures are classified, but we have some frame of reference for what the NSA spent, and continues to spend, on data analysis. In fiscal year 2013, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA spent $429 million on research and development of new technologies, which in-memory was back in 2004. Today, these databases are integrated into the NSA's operations, so they're funded by the agency's much bigger data analysis budget. In fiscal 2013, the agency spent $1.5 billion in that area. The NSA's total budget has increased 53 percent since 2004, so if we presume that all areas of the budget increased at roughly the same pace, the agency was still spending nearly $800 million. This is an imperfect estimate, but it makes the essential point that the NSA spends extraordinary amounts of money trying to store and retrieve data.
I write about this critical turning point in NSA's data mission in my book, The Watchers. It's a case study in how a huge intelligence agency was able to help create a viable commercial market for an expensive and little-used technology. Ellison should send the geeks at Ft. Meade a thank you note.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The National Security Agency has managed to defeat the powerful commercial encryption technology that, for nearly two decades, individuals, corporations, activists, and governments around the world have used to keep their communications safe from the prying eyes of digital spies and intelligence organizations.
In short, this means that the NSA, the largest intelligence agency in the U.S. government, has the power to read huge troves of email and other encrypted communications that once would have appeared as a digital scramble, useless to government spies.
Citing classified documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the New York Times reported on Thursday that the agency has used "supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age."
In what amounts to a multi-front campaign against encryption technology and the people who develop and use it, "The NSA hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted. And the agency used its influence as the world's most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world," the Times reported.
Developers and experts had long assumed that the NSA was attempting to foil the strong encryption technology that has proliferated on the web in recent years. But some were still stunned by the scale and scope of the effort.
"All the things we thought were worst-case scenario are actually happening," said Nadim Kobeissi, the developer of Cryptocat, a web-based encrypted chat program. "There's no way it could get worse than this."
He was particularly alarmed to learn that, according to documents reported by the Times, the NSA is spending $250 million on a "Sigint Enabling Project," which "actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products' designs" to make them "exploitable."
Kobeissi said that experts had believed that governments were working covertly to insert back doors and holes into systems to make them crackable by intelligence agencies. The Times revelations appear to confirm this is true.
Kobeissi also noted that, according to classified budget information recently leaked by Snowden, the U.S. government employs 35,000 people focused on cryptology, and spends $11 billion a year making and breaking codes.
On the other side of that effort are people like Kobeissi and a few dozen experts and researchers who comprise a community of coders trying to build open-source, open-access technology to protect private communications. Kobeissi admitted that they are outmatched by the NSA.
Mike Janke, the CEO and co-founder of the encrypted communications firm Silent Circle, said the new revelations show that the NSA has been successful at cracking "lower-level, low-hanging fruit" encryption like virtual private networks and Secure Socket Layer, two ubiquitous technologies. Janke said that stronger encryption systems, like the one his company uses, are still safe.
But this doesn't mean that stronger encryption can foil the NSA, Janke cautioned. The agency "has moved more to compromising platforms and hardware, instead of trying to break more sophisticated encryption schemes," he said. "That is why it is so important that we inform people that their platforms are the weakest link."
Documents previously released by Snowden show that the NSA has the authority to keep all the encrypted messages it collects for five years, until the agency can determine if the sender was an American citizen (and therefore afforded greater privacy protection under law), and until analysts can figure out whether the content of the message has any intelligence value.[[LATEST]]
The NSA has had to build a huge new facility in the Utah desert to store all the information it is collecting. What this latest revelation shows is a comparably massive effort to decrypt what's coming into the NSA's systems.
Intelligence officials asked the Times and ProPublica, which also received the documents, not to publish their stores because it could alert foreign governments to switch to new forms of encryption that are harder to collect and read, the Times reported.
This shows that while the NSA may have the upper hand in terms of money and manpower, the encryption battle is not entirely one-sided. Developers can always make stronger codes and more secure systems -- and they will.
"It is a constant race," Janke said. "Always improve the crypto and implementation of it to stay ahead of their billions of dollars of resources."
The data divers at the Defense Department know better than most how to track down someone just by looking at his phone records. Now they want to know if America's enemies could cause a fiscal meltdown or a massive cyber attack by combing through Netflix queues, Uber accounts, and Twitter feeds.
The doomsday thinkers over at DARPA are looking for researchers to "investigate the national security threat posed by public data available either for purchase or through open sources." The question is, could a determined data miner use only publicly available information -- culled from Web pages and social media or from a consumer data broker -- to cause "nation-state type effects." Forget identify theft. DARPA appears to be talking about outing undercover intelligence officers; revealing military war plans; giving hackers a playbook for taking down a bank; or creating maps of sensitive government facilities. [[LATEST]]
The irony is delicious. At the time government officials are assuring Americans they have nothing to fear from the National Security Agency poring through their personal records, the military is worried that Russia or al Qaeda is going to wreak nationwide havoc after combing through people's personal records.
As timely as this new DARPA project is, it wasn't NSA snooping that piqued the agency's interest. It was Brokeback Mountain. In 2009, Netflix sponsored a contest to improve its movie recommendation algorithm. Things went off the rails when a pair of researchers used supposedly anonymous information provided by the company to identify Netflix customers, by comparing their film reviews with reviews posted on the Internet Movie Database. A closeted lesbian who had watched the award-winning gay cowboy flick sued Netflix, alleging her privacy was violated because the company had made it possible for her to be outed.
DARPA's requests for research proposals points to the Netflix debacle, and the lawsuit, as a cautionary tale. Part of the research is aimed at identifying which potentially dangerous databases and computing tools are out there.
And in a second bit of irony, DARPA suggests a few, including "low-cost big data analytic capabilities" like Amazon's cloud service. That's the service that the CIA wants to use to build a $600-million cloud for the intelligence community. Could a tool meant to serve the spies' computing needs end up being used against them? Researchers who think they have the answer may submit their proposals starting Aug. 26.
In the spirit of last February's report by Mandiant detailing the exploits of a Chinese-government-linked hacker group, Russian IT security giant Kaspersky Lab today released a report on another sophisticated Chinese cyber-espionage outfit, dubbed the Red Star APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) by the lab.
According to the lab, this advanced hacker group of about 50 people has been active since at least 2005, possibly 2004, and has invaded the networks of more than 350 "high profile" victims ranging from Tibetan and Uyghur freedom activists to government agencies, embassies, universities, defense contractors, and oil companies in 40 countries using "covert surveillance" and espionage software called NetTraveler. (The name sounds so innocent, doesn't it?)
Specifically, NetTraveler is delivered via a malicious Microsoft Office file inside a spearphishing email. Once installed on a machine, it steals sensitive data from victims' machines, records victims' keystrokes, and "retrieves" Microsoft Office files or PDF documents, according to Kaspersky. The malware is often used in conjunction with other cyberspy tools.
One of the best details about NetTraveler that Kaspersky listed in its report is the fact that it takes advantage of an old flaw in Microsoft Office, one the Seattle-based company issued a patch for a while ago. Nevertheless, poor network hygiene allowed the malware into victims' networks.
"It is therefore surprising to observe that such unsophisticated attacks can still be successful with high-profile targets," notes the lab's report on Red Star, pointing out that, by not updating their software, the victims basically did some of the attackers' work for them -- they left the digital gate unlocked. Six of the victims were even infected by the Red October malware we told you about last fall.
"It's kind of shocking that government institutions, diplomatic institutions that have been warned they were infected, they don't do anything about it," said Costin Raiu, director of the lab's global research and analysis team, today during a cybersecurity forum in Washington that his company sponsored.
So, just what does the Red Star crew appear to be looking for? Sixty percent of its targets are government embassies, militaries, and other government agencies. The rest are predominantly research institutions, manufacturing firms, and aerospace businesses. The victims are also predominantly located in Asia, with Mongolia topping that list as the host of 29 percent of victims, followed by Russia (19 percent) India (11 percent), Kazakhstan (11 percent) and Kyrgyzstan (5 percent).
Among the information the Red Star gang is looking to steal is data on nanotechnology, lasers, aerospace technology, drilling gear, radio wave weapons, nuclear power, and communications tech, according to the lab.
Red Star recruits young hackers without a lot of technical expertise "who simply follow instructions" on how to develop and release NetTraveler on a set of targets they are given, Raiu said today. "They get a toolbox, they get instructions, they get the Trojans [malware] and they get a target -- 20, 25, up to 30 different targets they need to attack. Just one single successfully completed project can actually pay their monthly expenses."
The lab doesn't come out and say that Red Star APT is affiliated with the Chinese government, only going so far as to say it is a "medium-sized threat actor group from China." However, a number of factors suggest it might be. NetTraveler was developed by someone with native Chinese language skills, and IP addresses traced by Kaspersky are in China. What's more, the victims are either businesses in sectors that China wants to excel in, political groups the Chinese government wants to keep tabs on, or government organizations. That being said, Red Star could just be "a non-government hacker group who steals IP and sells to whoever is buying," Jeffrey Carr, CEO of cybersecurity firm TAIA Global noted on Twitter last night.
Syrian opposition groups and international aid groups are hustling to figure out a way for Syrian civilians to gain access to the outside world after nearly all Internet -- and possibly cell phone service inside the country went down today.
Many are concerned that this communications blackout is the precursor to a nation-wide massacre by the Assad regime.
"This is the MO of the regime before it storms any given area, they cutoff communications, water, power, before they storm and what always happens is a massacre," Rafif Jouejati, a U.S. representative for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria told Killer Apps today. "The fear is that this is going to be a nationwide storming, if that's possible."
However, "state TV and state supported television are reporting that, on one hand, that it was ‘terrorists' that brought down the Internet and the other story we're hearing [from the official outlets] it that it's a system malfunction and they're working hard to repair it quickly, so the state isn't even coming out with a consistent message," said Jouejati.
Right now, it's impossible to tell for sure who or how the Internet, cell networks and some landlines were cut -- though some reports indicate that a single router handling the majority of Syrian web traffic was taken offline.
"You might have a single Internet exchange point in Damascus that's been shut down, much the same way that Mubarak did [in Egypt, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square]. Authoritarian regimes often will architect their Internet activity to have a single point of surveillance and monitoring and uplink" that can be easily unplugged, said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Internet in a Suitcase project at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "The good news, if there is any, is that it probably won't take more than a few days to establish other links into" Syria.
Meinrath doubts the rebels took out the internet connection, "it seems unlikely that such a critical resource would be accessible to the rebels, especially as these systems are often in the heart of the city."
For now, "the workaround is dial up ... and that information is circulating on the Internet, which is not really helpful, but people are able to call to their families [because] not all landlines are down, and of course people with satellite phones are able to get the message so we're trying to spread it as widely as possible," said Jouejati.
The real problem will be if cell phone and landline networks remain down -- then things will become "much tougher and much more dangerous," added Meinrath, who echoed Jouejati's concerns that this is the precursor to a government massacre.
"Right now we know very little, we know that a number of ... servers have been cut off, and we are unable to reach spots that we had access to. I would say we won't know the extent of things for at least another few hours," said Meinrath.
If this was a government act, said Meinrath, "it's a sign that they've identified a crucial resource for democratic organizing and they've attempted to cut it off. They see the Internet as a force multiplier for good and they're working very diligently to make sure that resource is no longer available to the opposition."
The Internet in a Suitcase project is meant to provide people around the world with a secure means of accessing the web in disaster zones or places with severe government monitoring of communications.
"Internet in a Suitcase is built for exactly theses kinds of scenarios," said Meinrath, though he cautioned that his effort is not yet secure enough to ensure that its users will not be monitored by government forces. (Click here to read more about the project whose development was funded by the U.S. State Department.)
While Internet in a Suitcase is still being tested in relatively safe environments, Meinrath's group is in touch with the State Department about a possible deployment to Syria.
"We first put in a proposal to work [in Syria] six months ago, and were turned down," said Meinrath. "We were then invited to submit a statement of interest, which we did two weeks ago. Unfortunately, it's going to be too late to be of use in the current moment."
Meanwhile, the State Deparment says that it has distributed 2,000 secure "communication kits" to the region.
"Yes, we've provided some 2000 communication kits since this effort began. these are all kinds of things - computers, cameras, phones - they are all designed to be independent from and circumvent the Syrian network .... precisely to keep them free from regime tampering, interference and interception," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Here is the statement put out by the Local Coordination Committees on how Syrian residents may access the outside world.
In a move which raises fears that the regime is preparing for something, the criminal Syrian regime cut all communications (cellular networks, landlines and the internet service) in most areas of Damascus, which is the capital, and in its suburbs. In addition, communications were cut in most areas in the governorates of Hama, Homs, Daraa; in all areas in the governorates of Tartous and Swaida; and in some cities in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
The Coordinating Committees hold the regime responsible for any massacres that would be committed in any Syrian cities after such a move was made. Also, they call upon the world to move quickly and to take practical steps to protect civilians from the regime's crimes.
In addition, the Committees would like to remind the Syrian people that it is possible to connect to the internet via the dial-up service:
Dial up access Syria: +46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030
password:telecomix OR +33172890150
Additional reporting by David Kenner.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the U.S. Air Force's brand new chief of staff, revealed today that he is worried that investing in cyber without truly understanding the military's requirements could be a resource "black hole."
"I'm a believer, I'm just not sure we know exactly what we're doing in it yet, and until we do, I'm concerned that it's a black hole," said Welsh during a speech at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference just outside of Washington. "I'm going to be going a little slow on the operational side of cyber until we know what we're doing."
One of the biggest problems is that he does not know exactly what is expected from the Air Force in terms of cyber. Until he has a feel for that, he said, he is hesitant to commit to resources to cyber at a time of declining defense spending.
"I don't know of a really stated requirement from the joint world, through U.S. Cyber Command in particular, as to what exact kind of expertise they need us to train to and to what numbers to support them and the combatant commanders," said Welsh in response to Killer Apps' questions during a press conference after his speech.
The general went on to say he thinks that up to 90 percent of Air Force cyber personnel are simply responsible for operating and defending Air Force IT systems. "They're not what NSA would call a cyber warrior for example," said the four-star, meaning that a very small percentage of Air Force cyber operators specialize in offensive operations. "That's confusing to the rest of the Air Force because the rest of the Air Force doesn't understand, they don't really know what we're doing [in cyber]."
"Until we're all on board and under the same direction, I'm a little hesitant to commit wholeheartedly a major resource expenditure in an area that I don't completely understand," added Welsh. "I may understand it very quickly. . . but I want them [Cyber Command] to have to explain [what's expected of the Air Force], not just to me but all the people who work resources. It's not as simple as it sounds."
He went on to say that overall, the service leaders must learn more about cyber, since the majority of the service's leadership still doesn't understand it.
"This is essential, it's an air space and cyber future, there's no doubt about it and everything we do and be effected either by or through" cyber, he added.
To that end, Air Force brass will be taking a trip to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., later this week to learn what the agency does in the cyber realm. In November, the service will hold a cyber summit for its four-star generals to educate them in all things cyber, Maj. Gen. Earl Matthews, director of cyberspace operations for the Air Force's chief information officer said earlier in the day.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.