Preparing for cyber warfare


By Debbie Gregory.

The fight is leaving the battlefield and entering cyberspace.

Experts have spent years warning the U.S. military that their computer networks are at risk. The networks have been disrupted and fallen prey to intellectual property theft by nations such as China and Russia, in addition to hackers and criminal groups.

Now the U.S. military is developing a unit capable of taking out this new enemy, even as overall defense spending is cut. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 budget allotments for an additional $800 million for cyber warfare spending. Meanwhile, the overall Pentagon budget will be cut by $3.9 billion.

The new headquarters of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command is being built at Fort Meade, Maryland, 25 miles north of Washington D.C. on a former military golf course. There, experts expect 3,000 – 4,000 cyber warriors to take their place on the battlefield by late 2015. The additions will quadruple the size of the current Cyber Command.

“We’re going to train them to the highest standard we can,” Army General Keith Alexander, head of Cyber Command, told the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit last month. “And not just on defense, but on both sides. You’ve got to have that.”

There is a growing fear that cyber threats will escalate from mainly espionage and disruptive activities to far more catastrophic attacks, destroying or severely degrading military systems, power grids, financial networks and air travel. Therefore, U.S. military commanders have worked to develop offensive strikes, and have made cyber warfare an integral part of future military campaigns.

While military officials often publicly discuss the nation’s cyber weaknesses in public, there is little talk about the nation’s offensive cyber warfare capabilities. Much of those details are classified. Possible U.S. offensive cyber attacks could range from invading other nations’ command and control networks to disrupting military communications or air defenses. They could even consist of putting up decoy radar screens on an enemy’s computer to prevent U.S. aircraft from being detected in its airspace.

Experts say the U.S. may be the best in the world at inserting viruses and other digital weapons into enemies’ networks. And other countries agree. Last year, U.S. and Israeli officials created a virus that damaged systems at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

While the nation’s capabilities are clear, what is unclear is when their use is warranted. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the United States must be ready and should articulate – soon – what level of cyber aggression would be seen as an act of war, bringing a U.S. response.

“One of the things the military learned, going back to 9/11, is whether you have a doctrine or not, if something really bad happens you’re going to be ordered to do something,” he told the Reuters summit. “So you better have the capability and the plan to execute.”

“To be a good cyber warrior, you have to be thinking, ‘How is the attacker discovering what I’m doing? How are they working around it?’ … Cyber security really is a cat and mouse game,” said Raphael Mudge, a private cyber security expert and Air Force reservist. “That kind of thinking can’t be taught. It has to be nurtured. There are too few who can do that.”

“They’re going to pick the cream of the crop for the ‘full spectrum cyber missions’,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, using a euphemism for cyber offense.