Threatened Pentagon programs will play up cyber roles, experts predict

Military program managers whose operations are vaguely associated with computer networks could reposition their programs as being critical to cybersecurity to tap into one of the few untouched defense accounts and boost their own funding odds, some budget experts predict.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January rewrote the nation's military strategy to, in part, increase spending on cyberspace operations and cut back on ground troops. Panetta repeatedly has said "the next Pearl Harbor" could be a cyberattack that turns off electricity, financial transactions and government services. At a defense funding briefing, researchers from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said they expect U.S. forces will have difficulty determining how much to spend on cyberspace and what exactly to spend it on because of the amorphous nature of the domain.

The challenge is reminiscent of the emergence of the Global Information Grid, or GIG, last decade, when military officials struggled to determine which activities supporting the U.S. warfighting data network should be considered part of the program, said Todd Harrison, a budget studies analyst at the center.

"Basically anything connected to any network was all part of the GIG," including the power and water infrastructure, "so a toilet overflowing somewhere can affect the GIG," he said.

Now that the Pentagon is focusing its investments on cyber, the same kind of piggybacking could occur. "If people believe that's where money is going, they want to slap that label on themselves," said CSBA President Andrew Krepinevich.

Defensewide cyber spending could increase from about $8 billion in fiscal 2012 to more than $13 billion by fiscal 2016 if the country suffers a cyberstrike on the scale of Pearl Harbor, according to an October 2011 industry forecast by TechAmerica.

Krepinevich said he is most concerned that the military does not have a strategy for fielding effective defenses against a catastrophic attack. "If warfare is classical physics, this stuff is quantum physics," he said. The Pentagon has publicly stated its strategy is to deter adversaries with sophisticated intrusion-protection technologies that will sap the energy and resources of anyone who attempts penetration. But the problem with deterrence in cyberspace, he said, is identifying who the adversaries are in an anonymous domain.

Another factor complicating spending -- the Homeland Security Department and the civil sector share the duty of defending U.S. networks. "The overarching problem is who is responsible for what," Krepinevich said.

Last year, the Pentagon had to recalculate its cyber budget request twice after realizing the services each defined "cybersecurity" differently when they tabulated the cost of hardening their networks. Nextgov reported the discrepancies in March 2011 after noting the Air Force's 2012 budget request for cybersecurity was twice the size of the entire department's cyber spending proposal. Pentagon officials subsequently increased the $2.3 billion Defensewide figure to $3.2 billion.

The differing spending projections stemmed from the fact the Air Force's $4.6 billion cyber budget estimate included "things" not typically considered information assurance or cybersecurity, Defense officials said at the time.

In July, the Government Accountability Office told Pentagon officials that until they defined the activities involved in cybersecurity, the military would not know how much it is spending to defend computer networks.

"Until DoD can provide a complete budget estimate for these operations, it will be difficult for the department and Congress to obtain an accurate and comprehensive view of the resources devoted to this emerging warfighting domain and make investment trade-off decisions," the GAO auditors reported.