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San Antonio Secures Air Force Cyberspace Center

Kathi Vieser Bianco (Dec/Jan 10)
Photo courtesy USAF Photo courtesy USAF
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Cyberwarfare. The word itself sounds foreboding, futuristic, and complicated. Cyberwarfare is the use of computers and the Internet to conduct war in cyberspace, and it is one of the fastest-growing areas of military attention. It includes such tactics as electronic spying, spreading disinformation via text messaging, or shutting down infrastructure such as power grids or water supplies. This key area of national defense is the focus of the 24th Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and is expected to bring revenue and jobs to an area that has a strong military and intelligence presence and tradition.

The Air Force chose Lackland as the new command center for the cyberwarfare operation over bases in Louisiana, California, and Nebraska, according to a November article in The New York Times. The Times reports that the center is expected to bring between 5,500 and 7,000 new jobs to the area, including military personnel, civilian Defense Department workers, and private-sector contractors. Major General Richard E. Webber, commander of the 24th Air Force, told the Times that the choice of San Antonio was based on "proximity to other cyberoperational missions, as well as access to communications and bandwidth capabilities, infrastructure, and the local scientific and technical base."

Local government, economic development, and business leaders, led by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Representative Charlie Gonzales (D-Tex.), spent more than two years lobbying the Air Force for the center. The Times says that San Antonio's Lackland was not even on the Air Force's initial list of potential sites. But according to John B. Dickson of Denim Group, a San Antonio computer network and security firm, ". we had a secret weapon - a lot of retired colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors who have shed their uniforms and now are in key positions at the Chamber of Commerce and all across the business community." Dickson, himself a retired Air Force officer, told the San Antonio Express-News in 2007, "I can't stress enough that what we've got outdoes all other communities. There are a lot of symbiotic relationships here."

Among the local resources on which the Air Force will draw is the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security, part of the Institute for Cyber Security (ICS) at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dwayne Williams, the center's assistant director, told the Times that the center's "Dark Screen" exercise has been adopted by municipalities in 11 states to learn to protect critical infrastructure from computer network attacks, and that his organization was prohibited from assisting officials in their pitch for the center because of center personnel's insider knowledge of weaknesses in other cities' computer security systems. In addition, the National Security Agency already has significant operations in the San Antonio area, including a unit that protects government security systems. Lackland is already home to the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency and the Cryptologic Systems Group.

Air Force leaders have made strong efforts to emphasize the importance of the cyber security operations to both their own personnel and to government officials. In a summer 2009 memorandum, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton A. Schwartz described the effort as "mission-critical domain" and encouraged airmen to become "cyber defenders" at every level: "Cyberspace pervades every other domain and transcends traditional boundaries. Without question, cyberspace is vital to today's fight and to the future U.S. military advantage over our adversaries." Aviation Week reports in a November 2009 article that a 2008 cyber attack brought the issue to the forefront. "One year ago this month, we had a wake-up call in cyberspace. We had a severe intrusion into the Defense Department networks," said General Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command, quoted in the article. "It changed the way people are thinking about cyberspace. This time it's everybody's problem - every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine."

At press time, the center was scheduled to begin full operations by the end of December 2009.


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