Blue Force Tracker for cyberspace?

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 29, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

The U.S. military increasingly relies on the network for fighting battles on the ground and in cyberspace. But cyber commanders in southwest Asia don’t yet have the tools they need to harness the power of the network to wage war.

Air Force network operators need better situational awareness when doling out technology resources, according to a junior officer who recently returned from the Central Command area of operations. They must be able to determine which ground forces receive valuable bandwidth and network access as they perform real-world missions.

The military will also need the ability to see and track allied forces in the network to fight future wars in cyberspace -- a virtual version of the blue force tracking capability commanders use in the physical world to mark and identify friendly forces on the battlefield and to transmit that picture over the network.

“We need a Blue Force Tracker for cyberspace,” said Air Force Capt. Brian Hobbs, deputy chief of the Directors Action Group at Air Combat Command headquarters’ communications directorate at Langley Air Force Base, Va. Hobbs was speaking Jan. 25 at the Network Centric Warfare Conference hosted by the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium in Washington, D.C.

In 2006, Hobbs was chief watch officer at CENTCOM’s Theater Communications Control Center in Bahrain. In that role, he was tasked to authorize network disruptions caused by limited bandwidth or system maintenance.

But Hobbs couldn’t perform the impact analysis to determine the consequences of his actions, he said. He feared warfighters engaged in battle operations might lose their communications through his actions.

Impact analysis should be automated, with a focus on speed and ease of use, Hobbs said. “I need a matter-of-fact representation, which conveys the impact of something happening on the network,” he said. “I need to see, visually, my cyber assets.”

Warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan praise BFT for giving them enhanced awareness on the battlefield. The system increases decision-making power, reduces response times, helps coordinate air support, and prevents friendly fire accidents, many soldiers said.

Perhaps most significantly, BFT drives decision making down the command chain, allowing junior officers to react to events without consulting senior officers who are removed from the action.

In cyberspace, junior officers must often make network decisions that affect ongoing battles. But young cyber commanders don’t have the clear picture they need to juggle limited network resources.

The net after next will require the true Blue Force Tracker capability to coordinate cyber forces fighting against a cyber enemy, Hobbs said. That is the longer-term challenge.

Conference attendees were intrigued by Hobbs’ comments. Many corporations have already contacted him to pitch ideas. Non-corporate members of the community are searching for the solution.

The commercial world has several network management software tools that could be adapted to address the cyber problem, said John Hudanich, an information systems engineer at MITRE Corp.

But warfighters who are fighting on the front lines are moving to Wi-Fi and mesh networking, which might make it hard to identify them, according to a professor at the Army War College.

Current network management tools can show which parts of the network are down, but they can’t do analysis, Hobbs said. “I need a lot more tools than just the plain-Jane network management tools that are available currently,” he said.

Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force, explained to the conference attendees the ever-expanding role of cyberspace in warfighting.

“Cyberspace superiority is the foundation for network-centric warfare,” Elder said, “We’re not just treating cyberspace as an enabler as we did in the past. It is [now] a warfighting domain.”

The Air Force’s current cyberspace strategy centers around freedom of action, network system security and survivability of the network.

Elder said decision-making power should go to those closest to the fight. Theatre commanders should have the ability to control global effects, he said. This challenge is technical, philosophical, and cultural, he added.

The Air Force will establish a Cyber Command based on the infrastructure of the 8th Air Force to consolidate its cyber resources, the service announced in October. Cyber Command will open its doors sometime this year. It will grow into a major command, led by a four-star general, by 2009, officials have said.

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