Air Force's Behler pilots Stratcom through high-tech 'virtual Cold War'

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. Brig. Gen. Robert Behler has spent the majority of his military career as a test pilot, having been the only pilot in the Air Force to have flown the world's fastest and slowest aircraft. In fact, he had limited experience with information technology before he became t

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb.— Brig. Gen. Robert Behler has spent the majority of his military career as a test pilot, having been the only pilot in the Air Force to have flown the world's fastest and slowest aircraft.

In fact, he had limited experience with information technology before he became the director of command, control, communications and computer systems of the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) in April 1997. Now he describes himself as an IT "disciple."

Behler said he was chosen for the job because his boss wanted someone who could see beyond the technical jargon that is often involved with IT and could focus on the mission. Stratcom's mission is to target and command the nation's nuclear forces.

"My credo is to transform information technology into warfighter capability," Behler said, adding that he now considers himself in what he calls IT graduate school. "The only difficult part of this graduate school is they're teaching it in Chinese."

Behler, who graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in aerospace engineering, structured his career as an Air Force test pilot to help fulfill a dream of becoming an astronaut. But the Challenger explosion of 1986 and its impact on NASA's space shuttle program operations prevented him from realizing that dream.

After various assignments in the United States and abroad, including aircraft commander and deputy commander for operations of the SR-71— the world's fastest airplane— Behler became commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in 1995 before assuming his present position. Behler also has flown the world's slowest aircraft, a hot air balloon that dates back to World War II.

While the end of the Cold War has brought many drastic changes to the operations of the military, Behler now readies his 750 employees for what he calls a "virtual Cold War."

He said the U.S. military is in an arms race in cyberspace, with the arms being the cheap Internet tools that can be used by cyberterrorists and other hackers in potentially deadly scenarios, such as changing soldiers' blood types in computerized records that could be accessed on a battlefield.

"The information domain is going to be a whole new domain for warfare," he said. "Today it's not just a force enhancer; it's a whole new domain where war takes place. And it could cost lives."

While the command and control systems for the nation's nuclear weapons are completely isolated from outside connections, Behler noted that even this stovepiping does not ward off all threats to these vital systems.

"Nuclear command and control— is it completely invulnerable? The answer is maybe," he said. "You always have that problem of the internal worker going bad. The critical factors are the systems administrators, the people that hold the keys to the kingdom. Anytime you mention the words 'information technology,' you have to equate that to vulnerability."To defend Stratcom systems from insider and outsider threats, every employee is required to take extensive security training, Behler said. Stratcom also has recently established a program that rates the security status of the command's computers. If the "information conditions" ratings change because of an intrusion or another security problem, employees take pre-determined actions, such as halting all incoming e-mail or disconnecting all systems from the Internet.

Behler described the "silver bullet" of information security as education and awareness. In fact, he would like to see a "Year of Cyberspace Awareness" launched in the United States, during which members of the private and public sectors could learn more about the topic. He said information security axioms should be taught to children in the same way they are taught other axioms of life, such as, "Hold hands while crossing the street." One of his favorite proposed axioms is, "Don't give out your IP [Internet Protocol] address."

As for his personal axioms, Behler noted that part of his responsibility as an officer in the Air Force is to mold senior statesmen out of his underlings.

"What I like to do is light fires within people to do something," he said. "There are still a few people who light fires underneath people."

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