The Forgotten Side of Cyber Security
By 55th Strategic Communications Squadron
/ Published August 11, 2012
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- U.S. President Barack Obama stated that cyber threats are "one of the most serious economic and national security threats our nation faces." As a society we have interwoven "cyberspace" into almost every aspect of our daily lives. The military is no exception to this trend. Cyberspace is used to communicate and propagate intelligence across the entire spectrum of military operations.
But what are these cyber threats? Typically people equate cyber threats to an enemy trying to exploit or defeat systems through various malware attacks. While this is a very real threat, it can blind us to another important threat, the physical aspect of cyber security. The military must also protect against physical damage to our cyber infrastructure. These attacks can be premeditated by an enemy or occur indiscriminately by Mother Nature.
The 55th Strategic Communications Squadron at Offutt utilizes various cyber systems to support the nuclear command and control mission. The time sensitivity and gravity of this unique mission requires their cyber systems to be at maximum readiness, requiring uptime rates that exceed 98.5 percent. The protection of these vital systems against cyber threats is paramount.
The high frequency global communications system located at Elkhorn and Scribner is just one cyber system that the 55th SCS utilizes. This system is one of 13 located around the world that provides continuous, reliable, rapid two-way communication for all Department of Defense ground agencies, naval vessels and aircraft. Between the Elkhorn and Scribner sites there are 15 high frequency antennas, each one approximately 100 feet in height and capable of communicating up to 6,000 miles.
To various users, these antennas provide a key link to command and control operations. However, for Mother Nature these antennas are nothing more than 100-foot lightning rods. Believe it or not, a bolt of lightning does not just produce 1.21 gigawatts, but can actually generate nearly 1,000 times more energy at 1 terawatt. Also a bolt of lightning can reach temperatures of over 54,000 degrees. These two properties of lightning can be extremely destructive to equipment.
To mitigate this threat, the 55th SCS recently bolstered the protection of this cyber system by undergoing a month long project to re-ground each antenna. The entire process required the installation team to update 12 antennas at the Elkhorn transmission site and three antennas at the Scribner receiver site. Each antenna's grounding installation time varied, but on average the team was able to complete an antenna in a day and a half, which allowed the team to complete this project in under a month.
To meet the military standard requirements the team had to trench approximately 400 feet per antenna at a depth of 24 inches. Each antenna had 10, 10-foot grounding rods driven and exothermically welded to the ground wire. The welds were electronically set off and heated to approximately 4,000 degrees. This process provides a reliable connection to the grounding grid attached to each antenna tower and all the guy-wires.
This extensive project will aid in the protection of these cyber assets against the constant threat of thunderstorms that barrage the Midwest during the spring and summer months. More importantly, this project will help to protect the vital equipment and personnel who operate and maintain these antennas. Located only 500 feet from these antennas is the building that houses the equipment that controls these directional and omni-directional antennas. This close proximity puts this equipment at extreme risk during a storm. Proper grounding ensures lighting is displaced harmlessly into the ground rather than arcing to the building where it could cause thousands of dollars in damage. Just as important, this project ensures the safety of the personnel that maintain the communications equipment inside.
As the military becomes more and more dependent on cyberspace, it must continue to increase its cyber security as well. However, cyber security must be full spectrum and take a more proactive approach. The grounding project at the HFGCS sites at Elkhorn and Scribner is just one more step in that direction.