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After two years of delays, reversals and adjustments, the shape of the service's cyber warfare organization is finally beginning to emerge as it moves toward an official standup in May or June.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley approved on Friday a plan for standing up 24th Air Force, the service's new cyber warfare organization, as part of Air Force Space Command, an Air Force official said.
The plan, outlined in a document called a program action directive, calls for a combined headquarters element and operations center and three operational wings. Overall, 24th Air Force will have around 5,500 people.
"That will put all of the majcoms in high gear to implement all of the actions in that PAD," Maj. Gen. Bill Lord, commander of Air Force Cyber Command (Provisional) at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., said last week, before the document was signed.
The commander will be a two-star general, but it has not been decided if it will be Lord. That decision is expected within 30 days.
The wings will be the 688th Information Operations Wing, currently the Air Force Information Warfare Center in San Antonio; the 67th Network Warfare Wing, also in San Antonio; and the new 689th Combat Communications Wing, which will combine the existing 3rd and 5th Combat Communications groups. It will be at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., or Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
The headquarters — the location will be announced in April or May and finalized in June after the required environmental impact assessment is completed — will have about 400 people split evenly between the commander's staff and an around-the-clock cyber operations center.
"We view the cyber operations center [as having] the same kinds of divisions ... that a standard air operations center has," Lord said. "It's going to be an ops center, but it's nowhere near as large" as the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar.
Responsibility for standing up the command has been divided between the provisional cyber command and Air Force Space Command, with the cyber command working on operational issues and the Space Command determining how it will be organized, trained and equipped.
Air Force Space Command is working on a staffing plan and a budget, expected to be $5 billion to $6 billion annually.
"It's been really good because ... where we had two or three people trying to figure out the whole manpower business, we can now leverage an existing organization, the A1 folks of Air Force Space Command," Lord said.
The provisional cyber command, under Lord's direction, is developing a concept of operations to answer the nagging question of how cyber operations will actually work. The document is tentatively scheduled to be finished by March 30.
"What we're building is the conops for establishing, maintaining, exploiting and attacking in the cyber domain," Lord said. "How do you do that with our joint partners? How do we leverage the expertise of other capabilities that may be out there? How do we tie ourselves to our combatant commander, which is U.S. [Strategic Command], and how many bodies do they need, and are we satisfying that commander's needs?"
Lord said he envisions cyber operations as about 85 percent defensive — defending Air Force networks against attack and ensuring that networks aren't disrupted. The other 15 percent will be offensive actions against adversaries' cyber capabilities, but he declined to elaborate on what type of attack options will be available.
The emerging operational model is similar to that of Mobility and Space commands, which present their forces to combatant commanders through representatives in air operations centers and joint force headquarters, Lord said.
"We think that there's probably not enough cyber expertise spread throughout today's Air Force, [so] we can populate some expertise in the combatant commanders' operations centers and they can reach back" to 24th Air Force, he said.
Lord said the first places those representatives — notionally called directors of cyber forces — would be placed is the joint force air components that accompany the combatant commanders' headquarters.
Meanwhile, Air Force Space Command is dispatching teams to assess the six finalist bases. They're looking at factors such as cyber activities already at the bases or in the area, bandwidth and network capacities, base facilities and infrastructure, security measures and cyber-related industry and academia nearby.
Despite intense interest among congressional delegations and business groups in areas near the candidate bases, Lord said he does not anticipate the new headquarters will be a large operation.
"We're talking about 400 people [and] we're kind of moving into existing places, [so] we're not talking about a lot of new construction," he said. But "there's ... a prestige piece with having that kernel of expertise in a locale."