The United States government for years has been developing and deploying offensive cyber capabilities, most of it done without much in the way of public notice. That’s been changing of late, as government and military officials have become more open in discussing these capabilities and under what circumstances they might be used. Now, the U.S. Air Force has said that it has classified six unnamed tools as weapons, mainly as a way to improve the chances of those tools receiving the funding they need.
The Air Force has emerged as one of the key military branches for offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. The U.S. Cyber Command is the overarching strategic command that’s responsible for cybersecurity operations, and it comprises groups from the Army, Navy and Air Force. But it’s the Air Force that has become the most vocal and public about its capabilities and intentions when it comes to cybersecurity.
At a conference in Colorado Springs on Monday, an Air Force general said that the branch has now classified six of its cyber capabilities as weapons. The move is an effort to make it easier for the Air Force, and presumably other branches as well, to get funding for these tools.
“It’s very, very hard to compete for resources … You have to be able to make that case,” Lt. Gen. John Hyten said during the National Space Symposium, according to Reuters.
The budget process in Washington–always a convoluted and difficult one–has become even more problematic in the last couple of years as the economic environment has deteriorated and financial resources have become scarcer. Classifying offensive cybersecurity tools as weapons opens up a larger pool of money for their development. It is a semantic move that has little, if anything, to do with the tools themselves or how they’re used.
The U.S. government has been speaking more openly about its development and use of offensive capabilities, and one aspect of that strategy is the need to secure funding, a constant worry for government officials. Intelligence officials said recently that cybersecurity threats have moved to the top of the heap in terms of dangers to U.S. national security. Constant attacks from state-sponsored groups from a number of countries have targeted U.S. military, government and private-sector networks, looking for valuable data to steal. These attacks have been going on for years, but only recently have they become a major talking point in Washington. The increased rhetoric on this topic from U.S. politicians has angered foreign governments, especially China’s, but that hasn’t seemed to change the message coming from Washington.
The U.S. and other countries have been using custom tools for offensive operations for many years now, and calling them weapons only changes the conversation in Washington, not the reality of their use.