The Complex

What does cyber even mean?

Years after establishing a cyber fighting arm, the U.S. Air Force is still trying to define just what cyber operations are so that it can determine what troops and resources it should dedicate to cyber security versus simple IT work -- and increase its offensive cyber capabilities.

Right now, the military -- and rest of the government -- lumps everything from basic antivirus protection and network maintenance work into the "cyber" category, along with high-end operations along the lines of Stuxnet. The looseness of the definition has caused enormous confusion among military officials trying to figure out how to fund and organize themselves for cyber operations.

"The Air Force, a few years ago, made a decision that our legacy communications and information experts would all become cyberspace experts," said the Air Force's chief information officer, Lt. Gen. Michael Basla (shown above) during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon last week. "That has a lot of good logic behind it because a good portion of that force has a lot of the technological expertise required in the cyberspace domain."

However, most of these people build and maintain networks; they are not involved in or trained for high-end cyber espionage and combat. So now the service is trying to separate IT administration from cybersecurity.

"I think we will draw a clearer line and distinction between what is required to build, operate and maintain [Air Force networks] and what is required to operate on the network," said Basla. "So it's building versus operating on it. I think operating on it will be where we coalesce on our definition of cyberspace operations."

Such a definition is badly needed since everyone from the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, to the Government Accountability Office has been confused by the nebulous definition of cyber.

Basla said the service divides its cyber forces and tech buys into three categories: 


  • First, perhaps 94 percent of Air Force cyber resources go toward the day-to-day operations and network defense: "We've got to have an ability to defend our networks so we can perform those missions with a freedom of action, whatever that case may be, if that's controlling our remote piloted aircraft from Creech [Air Force Base] in Nevada all the way to somewhere halfway around the world; that has cyber elements. That is the bulk of our activity that is where most of the money is, that's where the people are."


  • Next are the Air Force's aggressive, "active" cyber defenses, which engage about 5 percent of the service's resources. "Defensive cyberspace operations is a pro-active defense strategy. What that means is we are attuned to [suspicious] activity in the network, we're discovering, we're detecting, we're analyzing and then we're taking action when we discover something that is a potential threat so we can avert that threat or we can shut that threat down."


  • Last, there's the highly classified world of offensive cyber operations. "This is, just like the term implies, when you take offensive action [similar to] other activities to the air, land, space, sea domains; that's a really small portion of the force, it's like, less than 1 percent," said the three-star general.

While basic network defense and maintenance takes up most of the service's cyber resources, Basla wants to automate as much of that activity as possible, for example through "smart networks" that can identify security weakness, so that the Air Force can focus most of its cyber resources on the ever-increasing demands for the active defense and offensive sides of cyber.

"Defending the net up front, operating and maintaining it day to day is our biggest responsibility and takes the most resources," said Balsa. "We want to automate some of these functions because we'll see [increased] demand signals on the other side and we're going to have to have trained personnel to" address.

Better defining cyber operations will help the military decide how to allocate precious resources to cyber. In September, Gen. Welsh said that he is wary of committing resources to cyber until he has a better feel of just what is expected of his service in that domain.

"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 at the Air Force Associations annual conference in Maryland.

Welsh went on to say 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]."

U.S. Air Force

The Complex

France joins the stealth drone club (updated)

Happy Monday. To kick this week off we thought we'd bring you these pictures showing that France has become the second (possibly third) nation in the world to (publicly) fly a stealth UAV. These images show Dassault's nEUROn (yes, it's really written that way) making its maiden flight in Istres on Dec. 1.

UPDATE: The Brits may have beaten France to the stealth Drone club a few years ago with BAE's little known Corax program. Read about the possibly stealthy Corax here.

Now, just because the nEUROn has flown, it doesn't mean that France is about to catch the U.S., which has been flying stealthy drone test jets since the 1990s and operating Lockheed Martin's stealthy RQ-170 in combat for at least a half-decade. nEUROn is a technology demonstrator; basically it's a plane used to prove that all the tech Dassault has designed for a stealth, unmanned strike jet will actually work. (To be fair, the nEUROn is significantly more advanced than the U.S.' first stealthy UAVs.)

Just last week -- around the time China was conducting its first-ever carrier landings and takeoffs -- the U.S. Navy hoisted its X-47B tech demonstrator aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in preparation for flight tests next year. The X-37B is a stealthy fighter-sized drone designed to prove that the sea service can operate an autonomous UAV from its carriers. That's right, the U.S. is about to start testing one of the most advanced aircraft in the world performing one of the most difficult tasks in aviation. X-47B is a precursor to something called Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) -- a stealthy, semi-autonomous, carrier-launched UAV that can do everything from air-to-air refueling to spy missions and bomb runs against ground targets.

Here are some stats about nEUROn from Dassault:

With a length of 10 meters, a wingspan of 12.5 meters and an empty weight of 5 tons, the aircraft is powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca "Adour" engine. 

The nEUROn will continue to undergo testing in France until 2014, at which time it will be sent to Vidsel in Sweden for a series of operational trials. It will then go to the Perdadesfogu range (Italy) for further tests, in particular firing and stealth measurements.

Much like the X-47B, the nEUROn is designed to prove the tech behind a stealthy strike fighter. That last sentence from Dassault's press release points out that the jet will be dropping bombs as part of its flight testing.

The U.S. and France aren't the only countries making stealth drones. U.K.-based BAE Systems is hard at work producing the Taranis, while Russia's MiG is trying to field a stealth UAV called the Skat, seriously. Meanwhile, you can bet China will unveil a stealth UAV in the near future.

Dassault Aviation