In what senior officials described as one of the most historic and significant days for the Air Force, the service officially created its first information warfare entity, known as 16th Air Force, Air Forces Cyber, during an Oct. 11 ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas.
The event included several former commanders of 24th and 25th Air Force, Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Burke “Ed” Wilson, himself a former 24th commander, Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson, deputy chief of staff for ISR and cyber effects operations and Lt. Gen. (s) Mary O’Brien who most recently was the commander of 25th Air Force and will replace Jamieson when she retires in Novemeber.
The Air Force deactivated 24th Air Force and 25th Air Force combining their functions into the new numbered Air Force, a move that has been in the works for several years.
The change is aimed at modernizing the Air Force for a new age of warfare, one officials described has shifting from one of attrition to cognition.
Adversaries have begun exploiting the cognitive and information space below the threshold of armed conflict to undermine norms and achieve strategic objectives without having to fight a physical or bloody war.
“Our adversaries should take note. No longer will they be able to affect the strategic doublespeak; publicly engaging in the international process while simultaneously taking actions in the cyber and information space to undermine international norms,” Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, 16th Air Force’s commander said during the ceremony. “Our adversaries will no longer have plausible deniability. We will expose their actions that undermine international norms and take the conflict in the information environment back to them.”
Haugh explained that the command’s early emphasis will be on cyber enabled information operations to “degrade the effectiveness of adversary malign influence” and produce “unclassified intelligence production to expose the actions that our adversaries are taking.”
This could manifest itself, for example, through declassifying ISR imagery to expose adversary actions of massing troops or military assets.
This is a tradecraft Haugh takes from his most recent post as commander of U.S. Cyber Command’s Cyber National Mission Force, which plans and conducts cyber operations aimed at disrupting adversaries in defense of the homeland. The group works against specific nation-state threats and aims to engage those enemies as a means of preventing cyber intrusions. It is often described as having Cyber Command’s best operators.
The Cyber National Mission Force recently began posting malware discovered by adversaries publicly as a way to burn their capabilities and help inform others to patch against said exploits. Because of this background, top officials lauded Haugh as the best person for the job to lead the Air Force into this new way of warfare.
Haugh “probably knows more about competition in the cyber domain than anybody. He’s well known at the highest levels of government,” Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force, told reporters en route from the ceremony in San Antonio. He noted during the ceremony that Haugh is “the perfect choice to advance our Air Force and strengthen our nation’s capabilities.”
That sentiment was echoed by other leaders.
“I believe that the history books will record the time that Gen. Haugh was leading the Cyber National Mission Force as when it was relevant and put on the map,” Vice Adm. Ross Myers, deputy commander of Cyber Command, said during the ceremony. “That will be the time in which we, you, the men and women of the Cyber National Mission Force, were contenders and all the adversaries took note.”
Goldfein also noted that as chief, it is his job to ensure that the chief of staff in 2030 has what they need to say with confidence that if they go to war with a peer adversary, they’ll win.
“They’ll go to war with the Air Force built by chief 21,” Goldfein, the 21st chief of staff, said. “Today’s ceremony is a significant contribution to this moral obligation; ensuring we continue to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace, now and into the future.”
Integration and competition
The new entity will consolidate a series of disciplines — to include ISR wings, cyber wings, weather wings and reconnaissance wings encompassing unmanned assets like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, U-2 spy plane and Distributed Common Ground System — to provide a more integrated and synchronized information warfare capability.
“By combining the disciplines of cyber operations, ISR, electronic warfare, information operations, under a single command, we’ll remove walls and stovepipes,” Goldfein said.
During a briefing to airmen and senior leadership following the ceremony, Haugh said the separation of these disciplines across multiple organizations in the Air Force created an inability to integrate operations across multiple domains across the conflict continuum. That’s a problem the service wants to solve.
“Tight integration between units within our enterprise will be the key to rapidly generating insights. By creating these linkages, we’ll start to identify new opportunities for targeting adversaries in the information environment,” Haugh said.
The organization will include information warfare cells that will provide integrated capabilities for air components at combatant commands as well as within the Joint Force Headquarters-Cyber, which sits beneath Cyber Command and conducts cyber operations for European Command, Transportation Command and Strategic Command.
What was not immediately clear, however, is how cyber will be integrated into the information warfare cells for air components across other combatant commands because other service Joint Force Headquarters-Cybers are responsible for conducting cyber operations at the other combatant commands.
One of the ultimate goals for the new organization will be to better prepare the service, and by extension, the joint force, in the so-called “competition phase” below the threshold of armed conflict every day.
Goldfein explained that of the National Defense Strategy’s three directives — compete, deter and win in conflict — the “compete” portion is the most immature.
“How do we build a force that is not only capable of winning and deterring but also engaged in this below the level of armed conflict competition every day,” Goldfein told reporters.
He said that the Joint Chiefs have begun to walk away from describing phases of a campaign.
“We used to say classic phase 0, now we’re phase 1, phase 2, but when we dug into it an important question we asked was ‘alright so where’s Putin right now in terms of his phase in cyber and where are we,’” he said. “The discussion of phases in the competitive space actually is unhelpful. So what you need to do is to understand where the competition is and be able to engage.”
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.