Panelists cite threats to U.S. computer networks

The United States is heavily dependent on cyberspace for its military, commercial and social interactions. But the vast and ever-expanding interconnected electronic networks are under constant attack and the nation's ability to defend them or to counterattack is hobbled by lack of coordination and "policy constraints," a panel of experts said Tuesday.

"Cyberspace has become a really big deal. We do our banking, our commercial activities over the Internet," said Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the Air Force's Cyberspace, Global Strike and Network Operations command. "It's really important to the Air Force... To maintain air superiority, we have to maintain cyber superiority."

The vulnerability of that capability has been demonstrated repeatedly, including an attack by hackers in June that shut down some of the Pentagon's unclassified computer systems and disrupted the e-mail system in the Defense Secretary's office, noted Rebecca Grant, a military analyst. That was one of the more significant of the thousands of attacks annually against the military computer and Web networks, Grant said.

But the potential for devastating disruption of a nation's government and commercial communications was demonstrated in April and May by a sophisticated, massive Internet attack that paralyzed Estonia for weeks, Grant said. Grant called the prolonged denial-of-service assault using a network of pirated computers -- which Estonian officials blamed on Russian security services -- "Web War I."

Although experts from NATO nations and elsewhere tried to help, the cyber assault forced the Estonian government and its major financial and commercial institutions to shut themselves off from the electronic world, Grant said in a publication released at a National Press Club session sponsored by the Air Force Association's Eaker Institute.

Because of its dependence on imagery and data from satellites and reconnaissance aircraft and communications relayed globally, the Air Force has declared cyberspace one of its "warfighting domains," along with air and space operation, Elder said. He is working to create a force of "cyberwarriors" who can protect America's networks and, if necessary, attack an adversary's systems, and intends to use Air National Guard personnel extensively in this effort, he said.

"My goal is, within a year, to have some cyber security unit in every state," Elder said.

Those cyber warfare missions could help replace hundreds of Air Guard jobs being eliminated by the retirement of many flying units as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission actions.

Although the Air Force has aggressively embraced cyber warfare, all the services have commands responsible for improving the ability to quickly transmit and utilize imagery and data via the public and security Internets, and the U.S. Strategic Command is responsible for cyber security.

But Elder, retired Gen. John Jumper, the previous Air Force chief of staff, and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Baker said the nation lacks a comprehensive concept of operations and doctrine on cyber warfare. And its ability to respond to an attack in peace time is restricted by "policy constraints" and the difficulty in determining who is responsible for such attacks, they said.

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