The U.S. military is accelerating its cyberwarfare training programs in an aggressive expansion of its preparations for conflict on an emerging battlefield.
The renewed emphasis on building up cyberwarfare capabilities comes even as other defense programs have been trimmed. Along with unmanned aircraft and special operations, cyberwarfare is among the newer, more high-tech and often more secretive capabilities favored by the Pentagon's current leadership.
In June, the U.S. Air Force's elite Weapons School—the Air Force version of the Navy's famed "Top Gun" program—graduated its first class of six airmen trained to fight in cyberspace. The new course, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, trains airmen working at computer terminals how to hunt down electronic intruders, defend networks and launch cyberattacks.
"While cyber may not look or smell exactly like a fighter aircraft or a bomber aircraft, the relevancy in any potential conflict in 2012 is the same," said Air Force Col. Robert Garland, commandant of the Weapons School. "We have to be able to succeed against an enemy that wants to attack us in any way."
The training effort comes amid a push by the Obama administration to rapidly deploy offensive and defensive techniques across the government, including at the Central Intelligence Agency, other intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security.
Cyberwarfare techniques have been deployed in an apparent U.S. and Israeli campaign to undermine Iran's nuclear program, elements of which were reported last month by the New York Times. The U.S. also contemplated using cyberweapons to incapacitate Libyan air defenses in 2011, before the start of U.S. airstrikes.
The military's cyber buildup began in 2008, leading to creation of a formal "U.S. Cyber Command." The command marshals computer-warfare capabilities from across the military and integrates them with expertise at the National Security Agency. Some of the defenses could someday be extended to the private sector.
Overall the Air Force spends about $4 billion a year on its cyber programs, though the training initiatives are a fraction of that cost.
Other military services also are taking steps to strengthen cyberwarfare capabilities and training. The Navy is revamping courses for 24,000 people trained each year at the Center for Information Dominance each year.
"It is that full span, from peace time to war and everything in between," said Capt. Susan Cerovsky, commander of the Center for Information Dominance.
James Cartwright, a retired Marine general and former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues the new emphasis on cyber training is critical. But he said the military should do a better job publicizing that it is working to hone all of its cyber capabilities—both defensive and offensive.
"For cyber deterrence to work, you have to believe a few things: One, that we have the intent; two, that we have the capability; and three, that we practice—and people know that we practice," Gen. Cartwright said.
The full range of U.S. cyberweapons is a closely guarded secret. U.S. officials have said the military is developing weapons aimed at cutting off power to precise, limited locations.
"Our curriculum is based on attack, exploit and defense of the cyber domain," said Lt. Col. Bob Reeves, who oversees the cyber course as commander of the 328th Weapons Squadron.
The U.S. also has acknowledged it has cyberweapons that could help suppress enemy air and sea defenses. Israel used cyber techniques to hide its aircraft in a 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear facility, according to current and former officials.
Such methods are taught at Weapons School, officials acknowledge. The course focuses on combining cyber power with more traditional combat, said Lt. Col. Reeves. That includes "affecting an adversary's computer system in a way that allows us to fly in an airstrike more effectively, with less resistance," he said.
Lt. Col. Steven Lindquist, one of the inaugural students, said the course asks officers to study how an attacker could launch a cyberattack against an Air Force command center or an individual airplane, and to construct defenses. An Air Force "aggressor" team at Nellis then tests the defenses.
"The Air Force aggressor acts as a hacker coming against us and we see how our defensive plan measured up," said Lt. Col. Lindquist.
The Air Force Weapons School provides advanced training for a handful of elite officers each year in traditional skills, like teaching aerial combat, reconnaissance and bombing, and also for the growing ranks of drone pilots. Adding the cyberwarfare course to the most elite school, officials say, is important to changing the mind-set of the military, where many still regard radios, telephones and computers as communications tools—not targets and weapons.
"We know this is a contested domain," said Lt. Col. Timothy Franz, staff director for the Air Force Office of Cyberspace Operations. "There are people out there trying to get into your telephones and networks for military purposes, and we recognize that having similar capabilities is imperative for the future fight."