generalbillymitchellBilly Mitchell was an iconoclastic American military airman from the early 20th century.  He was a firm believer in military air power and was ordered court-martialed in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge for criticizing his military superiors over the issue.  My kind of guy. Gary Cooper played Mitchell in a 1955 movie, by which time everyone knew he had been right all along.  My fear is that when it comes to cyber warfare there is no Billy Mitchell today in Washington.

Cyber warfare was big news last week.  President Obama said he would name a cyber warfare czar to be a single point of contact on the issue for his Administration and that person would have direct access to the President.

If only that were true, but it isn’t, and the U.S. will be endangered as a result.

Billy Mitchell’s argument was that aircraft would come to play a huge role in modern warfare, supplanting battleships at sea and artillery on the ground. Air power was so important, Mitchell argued, that there should be a single air service to develop and deploy aircraft as needed in any war.  This still hasn’t fully happened, of course, though Mitchell’s work did directly lead to the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947 — 22 years and one world war after his court-martial for suggesting it in the first place.

The problem with Obama’s cyber czar is that the Administration is CALLING the position a priority but not MAKING it one.  The position has in some accounts been called a “member” of the National Security Council, but the czar is also said to “report” to both the Director of National Intelligence and to the President’s Senior Economic Adviser.  Well you can’t be ON the council and also REPORT to those guys — one of whom is on the council and the other is allowed to drop in if he feels like it.

In short, this is an NSC staff job.

Obama said the czar would have “direct access” to him, but didn’t say how.  At best I think they’ll pass in the corridor.

This is no czar.  That’s literally the case, of course, because nobody has yet been hired for the job.  But it is also the case that the job will — as the NSC is organized — not have the power needed to do what must be done.  Czars are dictators; this guy can only recommend and even then he’ll be recommending to people who may not then bother to inform the President.

If the cyber warfare czar is, in fact, a czar, the first thing he or she should do is give himself a promotion, which won’t happen.

In the meantime there are competing interests at the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and possibly elsewhere.  Each of these agencies is building its own cyber warfare capability, each with a different agenda both stated and real.  The stated agendas are to play either cyber defense or offense.  The actual agendas are to protect departmental turf from the new cyber warfare czar, to undermine him or her.

Let’s go back to Billy Mitchell for a moment and think about how the technology of aerial warfare came to be in his era.  Most of the military services developed their own air capability as lip service to the idea while actually protecting major — and antiquated — weapon systems.  The U.S. Navy bought some planes and built some aircraft carriers, but not at the expense of battleships.  Even when naval air power came to the fore during World War II it was almost an accident, since the only surviving capital ships in the Pacific after the attack on Pearl Harbor were aircraft carriers, the battleships having for the most part been destroyed.  So the Navy had to rely on air power since that’s the only power it still had.

They weren’t smart at all, just lucky.

It is rare in U.S. military history for a technological innovation to come down on our side.  That’s because as self-designated good guys we are generally playing defense and defense doesn’t usually get the cool new toys.  It’s only in the U.S. development of nuclear weapons that we got a jump on the rest of the world — a jump that put us firmly in control for half a century (now past).

We are woefully unprepared for cyber warfare mainly because the military doesn’t want to lose funding for its other weapons — weapons that are likely to be rendered unusable or, worse still, actually used against us in a cyber attack.

Yes, it is that bad.

The best position here is to make cyber warfare a real priority, give the cyber czar some actual authority, and have him or her report to the President.  Otherwise the lessons of Billy Mitchell will have been forgotten and our first cyber war could be our last.