The Complex

DoD panel recommends special bomber-armed cyber deterrent force

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.

U.S. Air Force

The Complex

STRATCOM chief: EMP threat is "not a Cold War relic"

The threat of an electromagnetic pulse damaging the U.S. military is "not a Cold War relic," the Pentagon's top nuclear officer said today during a congressional hearing, in response to a lawmaker's question about the threat of an EMP attack.

And you thought the topic died with Newt Gingrich's presidential candidacy.

The Air Force in particular needs to harden its new crop of long-range bombers and drones that are sent against advanced defenses, according to Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, chief of United States Strategic Command. The new stealth bomber will be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and so its electronics need to be able to withstand the electromagnetic pulse emitted by a nuclear explosion. (The image above shows the Air Force's E-4B flying command post, commonly known as the doomsday plane, being tested to ensure it can survive an EMP.)

"It is something we need to prepare some of our systems to deal with in the operational environment," Kehler said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. "Particularly in anti-access, area denial environments in the future, one of the ways that adversaries will try to take away U.S. advantages will be through the electromagnetic spectrum -- whether that's jamming, whether that's some kind of electromagnetic interference, whether it's through cyber, or whether that's through an electromagnetic pulse."

It was unclear how concerned Kehler was about the threat of an EMP strike on the homeland -- a scenario I rarely hear military officials discuss outside of war games that look at every plausible threat to the United States. But Kehler said, "We have a lot of work to do, I am not yet comfortable" with the amount of work being done to deal with the threat of an EMP attack. "I think we haven't paid nearly enough attention to this."

Kehler told lawmakers that the U.S. military has recently stood up units dedicated to monitoring for and responding to any type of electromagnetic "issues" -- whether an an EMP strike, electromagnetic interference, or a cyber attack.

Wikimedia Commons