Do we need a cyber Billy Mitchell?

Editor Nick Wakeman explores the question of whether it's time to treat cyber as a domain equal to air, land, sea and space.

For the last few years the talk has been that we are at risk of a cyber Pearl Harbor or a cyber Sept. 11.

The context often is that we need a catastrophic wake up call in order to get our cyber house in order.

But after talking with Walt Grabowski of Serco at the Deltek holiday party last week, I wonder if that’s the wrong way of thinking about it.

Maybe we need a Billy Mitchell, instead.

According to Walt, cyber needs to be thought of as a domain like air, land, space and sea. It’s a domain that we live, defend and fight in. It’s connected, of course, to the other domains, just as those domains have interconnections. But it also is a stand alone entity and a strategy that reflects that.

But we still haven’t evolved to that kind of thinking, though, I think there is movement in that direction.

So who was Billy Mitchell and what does he have to do with cybersecurity?

Mitchell was a U.S. Army officer during World War I and by the end of the war commanded all air combat units. After that war, Mitchell was an agitator who he pushed for more investment in air power.

Remember, aviation was a new domain then, like cyber is today, and Mitchell knew that it would change the way we waged war and peace.

He argued forcefully that bombers could sink battleships, which wasn’t too popular with the folks at the Navy. He proved that with several demonstrations on decommissioned vessels. Eventually, he was court martialed. According to Wikipedia, he had accused Army and Navy officials of near treasonous actions for the way they managed national defense.

But Mitchell's demonstrations proved how important a domain air was. He changed the way we fought wars, an effect still felt today.

Unfortunately for Mitchell, it wasn’t until after his death in 1936 that his contributions were broadly recognized.

It is easy to take for granted the value of aviation today. But in Mitchell’s time it was revolutionary and for some people it was heresy.

So what can Mitchell teach us today?

A better historian than me can probably answer that question in more detail, but two things come to mind.

First is the vision to understand what a game changer the cyber domain will be and that it’s critical that we look at that way and not as a adjunct to other domains.

And second, and probably most importantly, Mitchell teaches tenacity and leadership. Whether it is the head of the Defense Department’s Cyber Command or the federal CIO, what’s needed is leadership that keeps pushing.

In other words, like Mitchell, you can’t be afraid to piss people off.