StratCom and the Domination of (Cyber) Space
By Tim Rinne State Coordinator, Nebraskans for Peace
It seems an unlikely place from which to try to dominate the world.
A remote Air Force base in rural Nebraska, twelve miles south of Omaha. There's even a cornfield across the road.
But it's where George Bush was rushed for safekeeping on 9/11. And today, it's where the White House continues to wage its international 'War on Terror' and to pursue its goal of dominating space.
And, as it now turns out. cyber space.
Ten years ago, U.S. Strategic Command was a weapon in search of a foe. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the headquarters for the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal without any real purpose. Things had reached such a dismal state for the Pentagon's 'doomsday machine' that the command's name was even popping up on some base-closing lists.
But 9/11 changed that. Virtually from the moment President Bush was shuttled to StratCom's underground command center, its role and mission began to morph.
By the time the first anniversary of the attack rolled around, "U.S. Space Command" had been moved under StratCom's control. Over the next three years, the command picked up the missions for "Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance," "Information Operations," "Full-Spectrum Global Strike" and "Missile Defense" (a misnomer if there ever was one, given it's offensive capability). In 2005, "Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction" was added to its mission quiver. And finally, in 2007, it was given the hazily defined task of "Cyberspace."
In the space of five years, the command had gone from just one mission (its half-century-long responsibility of "Nuclear Deterrence") to a total of eight. It had gone from being nominally defensive to offensive : from being a purported weapon of last resort that hopefully would 'never be used'-to 'being used for everything.' If before, Strategic Command had represented an end-of-the-world nightmare straight out of "Dr. Strangelove," this 'New StratCom' (with now conventional as well as nuclear war-fighting powers) was 'Dr. Strangelove on steroids.' Never in the history of the world had there been a military instrument of such power and global reach.
In testimony before Congress in February 2008, the current StratCom Commander (four-star Air Force General and former astronaut Kevin Chilton) went so far as to suggest that the name actually be changed from "Strategic Command" to " Global Command " to better reflect the scope and nature of the command's new duties.
If what these eight missions have in common, though, is their 'global' scope and nature, what knits them together is 'space.'
Fifteen years ago-during the Clinton Administration-the Pentagon began systematically 'wiring' the U.S.'s entire military infrastructure around the use of space technology. Today, space has become medium through which the U.S. now wages war, whether we're talking satellite-guided drones piloted from a trailer 7,000 miles away or foot soldiers on the frontlines in Afghanistan.
And U.S. Strategic Command-as the mission agent for space-has become the linchpin for virtually every military action the U.S. now undertakes.
As the chair of the Colorado Springs-based "Space Foundation" bluntly expressed it at the "Strategic Space and Defense 2006" conference in Omaha, "StratCom is a laboratory for the future of warfare."
Right this instant, StratCom is flying those Predator and Reaper drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's in charge of the missile 'defense' installations proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. Through its "Component Command" of the National Security Agency (NSA), StratCom is eavesdropping on our phone calls, monitoring our emails and textings and tracking our financial activities. It's shooting down errant satellites, lobbying for new generations of nuclear weapons and actively planning the next war-whether against so-called 'rogue states' like Iran and North Korea or a geo-political rival like China. With a simple 'go-ahead' from the White House, StratCom is now authorized to attack any place on the face of the earth in one hour- using either conventional or nuclear weapons -on the mere suspicion of a threat to the U.S. national interests.
Sixty minutes from now, StratCom could have started the next war, and the first Congress would hear about it would be on CNN .
Unlikely as it sounds, the military command center for America's global empire is buried out on the Nebraska prairie six stories down. It's from here that the U.S. flexes its global muscle and seeks to enforce its will. And it's why we say that StratCom is the most dangerous place on the face of the earth.
But there's an Achilles heel in this imperial design, for which StratCom acts as the hub.
Strategically, the U.S. has pursued a policy of space dominance because space is the ultimate 'high ground.' Whoever controls space can control the earth beneath.
As StratCom is quickly discovering, however-in today's world-to 'control space' you also have to be able to control ' cyber space.' If you can't protect your space assets and communication network from cyber attack, you can't control space.
And to hear Commander Chilton tell it, at present, the U.S. can't.
The most powerful war machine ever assembled is vulnerable-not from incoming ICBMs, some looming chemical-biological attack or a terrorist insurgency-but from hackers. Nowadays, enemies and rivals don't need to match the U.S.'s $740 billion annual military budget to be a viable threat. They just need a good computer.
And the specter of an attack that could hack into military battlefield systems or blind aerospace defense networks is now haunting StratCom and Pentagon officials' sleep.
In an interview with reporters on May 8, 2009, Chilton disclosed that the Pentagon's unclassified networks are probed thousands of times a day, as hackers try to steal information on military programs or planning. And the number of intrusions is on the rise. "I worry," he said, "when I see important information is taken from our networks."
The Pentagon itself disclosed in April that it had spent more than $100 million in just the last six months responding to and repairing damage from cyber attacks and other computer network problems.
But the military information 'grid' is just half of the problem.
The civilian information grid is equally at risk.
Former Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, warned last year that "the ability to threaten the U.S. money supply is the equivalent of today's nuclear weapon." A successful attack on a single large U.S. bank, he said, would have an "order-of-magnitude greater impact on the global economy" than the attacks of 9/11. Earlier this spring, the National Intelligence Director (NID) reported that it had evidence that the electrical grid itself had been compromised. "Do I worry about those grids, and about air traffic control systems, water supply systems and so on? You bet I do," said Joel Brenner, who oversees counter-intelligence operation for the NID office.
In response, StratCom has come out swinging.
Commander Chilton asserted in his interview that the U.S. would consider using military force against an enemy who attacks and disrupts the nation's critical networks. "A good defense also depends on a good offense" he told a reporter with the AP . "'I don't think you take anything off the table when you provide options' to the defense secretary or president, in the wake of an attack, whether the weapon is a missile or a computer program."
At this point though, StratCom's "Cyber Command" is more virtual than real. Although the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, has been proposed as the new command's new home (and its director, Air Force General and StratCom Component Commander Keith Alexander, as the new head of operations), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hasn't yet given his approval and no timeline has been set.
That will change. Soon.
With the Pentagon having put all its network eggs in the basket of space, no expense will be spared to seek to gain dominance in cyberspace (just as none was spared to dominate space).
Count on StratCom, accordingly, becoming bigger, more powerful and even quicker on the trigger.
And expect the command center for the U.S. military empire to be in Nebraska for a long time to come.