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Do we need a cyber Billy Mitchell?

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.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Dec 06, 2011 at 7:23 PM


Reader Comments

Wed, Dec 14, 2011

Well, Duh! Yes and boy howdy the biggest dysfunction we have in the EW community is the lack of a strong senior leader who is willing and able to taake a stand and truely advocate.

Wed, Dec 7, 2011 Joe Mazzafro

Cyber needs a Hyman Rickover, not a Billy Mitchell. Mitchell was an air power advocate, but Rickover advocated for AND created a sustainable nuclear power capability for the USN ---- and by extenstion a peaceful Nuclear Power Utility Industry joemaz

Wed, Dec 7, 2011 Gary Lee Tampa, FL

One can make the argument that the cyber domain is different in that it is not military targets which will be attacked. The London Blitz was not about attacking solely military targets, nor was Blitzkrieg across Europe. Attacking civilian targets has always been a part of warfare, as has been responding to invasion by defending both military and civilian assets. Or to put it another way, the Twin Towers were not a military facility, but had we known what was coming we would certainly have used military assets to defend. The problem with using military expertise and personnel is a jurisdictional one, not the nature of the threat. We need to come up with clear rules for where cyber jurisdiction passes from one part of our government to another, including the military.

Wed, Dec 7, 2011

Cyber is only a battle space because the PTB were stupid enough to put critical systems on public IP universe. Gov and private sector critical systems should have been split off at same time .com domain was ramped up. Hard to attack accross an air gap.

Wed, Dec 7, 2011 Greg Scott St. Paul, MN

Be careful what you ask for. Billy Mitchell apparently died broken and penniless. Yes he was right, but he pushed too far too fast, nobody supported him, and it cost him dearly.

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