This is interesting. The Defense Science Board's new report on protecting the Pentagon's computer networks calls for the development of a special force armed with its own bombers, cruise missiles, and cyber weapons to respond to a devastating cyber attack. Kind of like a mini, conventionally-armed Strategic Command for cyber deterrence.
We've heard Pentagon leaders acknowledge that they are building up their offensive cyber capabilities to deter destructive cyber attacks that could harm thousands or even millions of Americans. However, the new report says that the U.S. must go further to "ensure the President has options beyond a nuclear-only response to a catastrophic cyber-attack."
That's right, the report, written by the DSB's Task Force on Resilient Military Systems, implies that the United States might have to rely on nuclear weapons to retaliate after a large-scale cyber attack.
As one Pentagon official tells Killer Apps: "It's the responsibility of the Department of Defense to provide a range of options for policy leaders to deal with potential threats. In doing so, we must take into account the full range of capabilities at our disposal and how to engage if and when necessary."
To avoid going nuclear, the report calls for the Pentagon to develop a cadre of cyber and conventional forces that are heavily protected against cyber attack and dedicated to retaliating after such a strike.
"Cyber offense may provide the means to respond in-kind," reads the document. "The protected conventional capability should provide credible and observable kinetic effects globally. Forces supporting this capability are isolated and segmented from general-purpose forces to maintain the highest level of cyber resiliency at an affordable cost. Nuclear weapons would remain the ultimate response and anchor the deterrence ladder."
The document then lists a number of weapons systems that could be included in this special conventional deterrent force: "Global selective strike systems e.g. penetrating bomber, submarines with long range cruise missiles, Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS), survivable national and combatant command."
It goes on to suggest that only a handful of bombers would be specially defended and reserved for this cyber deterrence mission.
"Notionally, 20 aircraft designated by tail number, out of a fleet of hundreds, might be segregated and treated as part of the cyber critical survivable mission force. Segmented forces must remain separate and isolated from the general-purpose forces, with no dual-purpose missions (e.g. the current B-52 conventional/nuclear mission)."
To put this in place, the report calls for the Pentagon to develop "an updated Strategic Deterrence Strategy, including the development of cyber escalation scenarios and red lines."
Remember, the DSB is an advisory panel that gives recommendations to the Pentagon leadership about technological threats and challenges. It is not part of the U.S. military chain of command and the brass can ignore its findings.
"The department is reviewing the report to consider application of some of these recommendations for future cyber policy and operations," the defense official said.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.