updated 11/2/2006 9:16:13 PM ET 2006-11-03T02:16:13

The U.S. Air Force said Thursday it was setting up what could become a new four-star command to fight in cyberspace, where officials say the United States has already come under attack from China, among others.

"The aim is to develop a major command that stands alongside Air Force Space Command and Air Combat Command as the provider of forces that the president, combatant commanders and the American people can rely on for preserving the freedom of access and commerce, in air, space and now cyberspace," Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told an industry conference.

Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana — home to the 8th Air Force and about 25,000 military personnel involved in everything from electronic warfare to network defense — will house the fledgling Cyberspace Command, Wynne said.

"Cyberspace is a domain for projecting and protecting national power, for both strategic and tactical operations," Wynne said.

Last month, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff defined cyberspace as "characterized by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to store, modify and exchange data via networked systems and associated physical infrastructures."

Broad definition
The definition is broad enough to cover far more than merely defending or attacking computer networks. Wynne cited the use of remotely detonated roadside bombs in Iraq, "terrorist use of Global Positioning Satellites and satellite communications, Internet financial transactions by adversaries, radar and navigational jamming, and attacking American servers" as examples of operations involving cyberspace.

"This new way of war is data-dependent," he said. "We need to protect our data while detecting adversary data and then deny, disrupt, dissuade or destroy the source of that data or transmission as appropriate."

Heading the new command will be Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force, who said its capabilities would include, for instance, taking down a financial network if ordered to do so by the president or defense secretary.

"We see that as certainly within our realm," provided such action was consistent with laws of war such as proportionality and minimizing unintended harm to civilians, he told reporters at a briefing after Wynne's announcement.

Although the focus of U.S. efforts until now has been on defense, "we've come to realize there are a lot of things that we can do in the cyberspace domain that would be good for national security," Elder said.

He said the new drive would focus on standardization of operations, personnel training and making the case for more resources.

Lani Kass, who headed a cyber task force set up in January by U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, told the same briefing that the United States was already at war in cyberspace. She said U.S. foes were using it to attack "asymmetrically," meaning going after vulnerabilities.

China is prime competitor
In addition, she said, China was a U.S. "peer competitor" in cyberspace and had been involved in efforts to "exfiltrate" information from U.S. networks for at least 10 years — an activity she said probably was on the "upswing."

Elder, referring to any U.S. foe, added: "If they want to fight with us in cyberspace, we're willing to take them on there, too."

Wynne, replying to a question, said the Air Force would seek funding for the cyber command in fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1, 2008.

In December 2005, the Air Force mission statement was amended to include cyberspace as an operational area, along with air and space.

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