DOD's 'Manhattan Project'

With mission-critical networks under attack, DOD works to plug holes

Editor's note: This is the second in a two part series.

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The new Trojan war

Taking a page from the past and one from the future, the Defense Department is devising ways to fight a new kind of threat that requires the strategic tricks of ancient warriors and the untested tools of network-centric warfare.

Unless DOD changes how it operates and learns to defend its cyber networks, many military experts say it will not be able to wage an effective battle in the cyberwar that is emerging as the 21st century's biggest challenge.

The Pentagon is at a crossroads, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, the new director of the Defense Information Systems Agency and commander of the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations (JTF-GNO). "Networks are too important to the warfighter to not have them when the warfight begins," he said.

Croom said DOD approaches computer network defense by emphasizing convenience to users, but the department's future information assurance strategy should tilt toward adding security.

"The threat is great," Croom said. "It requires constant vigilance."

Other countries — for example, China — crime gangs and thrill-seeking hackers could steal information about U.S. military war plans and weapon systems to gain intelligence and embarrass the Pentagon. The threat has caused DOD to re-evaluate information assurance policies and acknowledge that such reviews will continue.

In the past year, DOD implemented new policies to strengthen computer network defense. In 2004, DOD created JTF-GNO to operate and defend networks that operate under Strategic Command (Stratcom).

The department also approved a new command structure that identifies four military officials who will report to Croom. The National Security Agency published a new technical architecture guiding DOD's acquisition and use of information assurance technology. DOD also issued directives on managing ports, protocols and services, and requiring periodic computer security training for all department employees.

DOD turned to procurement to support these policies and develop new kinds of defenses for cyberattacks. First, the department chose Retina from eEye Digital Security to scan computers for vulnerabilities. Then, DOD selected Hercules from Citadel to patch computers. Next, the department built a new multimillion-dollar command center to monitor global network operations and picked PestPatrol, antispyware from Computer Associates International. DOD will soon begin testing Pest Patrol before introducing it later in the year.

DOD identified nine new procurements to fill information assurance gaps and improve security analyses and responses departmentwide, said a DISA official who requested anonymity.

The procurements include:

  • Tier 3 Security Information Manager, a comprehensive system that tracks and analyzes data produced by scanning and sensing products.
  • Insider Threat, technology that prevents spies and double agents from installing malicious hardware and software.
  • Secret IP Network Security Enhancements, a system that strengthens protection of the U.S. military's classified network.
  • Honeynets, fake networks that draw adversaries away from the U.S. military's real networks, keep them occupied and collect intelligence on their attack methods.

The DISA official said the Computer Network Defense Enterprise Solutions Steering Group oversees those new procurements. It is led by Stratcom and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration and Chief Information Officer. That office develops DOD information technology policy and administers the department's $2 billion annual budget for information assurance products and services.

Bob Lentz, director of information assurance in the DOD CIO's office, said he agrees with Croom that the department is at a crossroads as it tries to operate and defend a complex of networks known as the Global Information Grid (GIG).

"This is the equivalent of the Manhattan Project," Lentz said. "I will say we are at that level of seriousness of securing this massive network."

Every four hours, he said, the equivalent of the entire Library of Congress' archives travels on DOD networks. To wage network-centric warfare, he said, the department's 4 million users must trust the confidentiality of the information that crosses GIG and be assured of its availability.

Adversaries, however, recognize the U.S. military's dependence on networks and electronic information and the importance of sharing data — all of which are main principles of the evolving net-centric warfare strategy. Enemies view that dependency as an opportunity to challenge the most powerful fighting force in the world on an even battlefield, military experts say.

Industry officials worry that all the steps the military will take might not be enough. They argue that net-centric warfare opens the services to hidden dangers.

"We tend to assume we will have a technological edge over our adversaries," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank. "That quite possibly may not happen because digital networking technology is readily available in global markets."

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a nonprofit organization that monitors computer security, warned that U.S. warfighters are becoming dependent on IT rather than using it as an enhancer.

"The risk of losing the engagement because the systems were hacked grows explosively," Paller said. President Bush has pledged to defend Taiwan if China attacks. And DOD has said the new local warfighting strategy of China's People's Liberation Army is to use computer network operations to seize the initiative and gain electromagnetic dominance early.

Jack Keane, the retired Army vice chief of staff who is now a military consultant and advises URS Corp., a federal contractor, said the new warfighting strategies of the United States and China play off each other. He said they could collide if China attacks Taiwan to unify it with the mainland.

Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of Defense, did not name China as one of the adversaries exploiting vulnerabilities in DOD networks in a memo to agency officials and military leaders last year. But "failure to secure our networks will weaken our warfighting ability and potentially put lives at risk," he said.

A network defense strategy: Honeynets

Army Col. Carl Hunt, director of technology and analysis at the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations, has recommended that the Defense Department fundamentally change how it protects its networks by building fake networks, or honeynets.

Honeynets would draw adversaries away from real U.S. military networks and gather intelligence on enemies' attack methods.

"These systems will collect information on methodologies, techniques and tools while providing a realistic playground for the intruder," Hunt said. By adopting a new set of maneuvers, DOD can lead persistent adversaries "to the terrain of our choosing."

Honeynets, however, will not solve all of DOD's computer network defense problems, Hunt said, adding that the department must also better understand its networks and the technologies available to protect them.

Hunt's comments appeared in "Net Force Maneuver: A NetOps Construct," a paper he co-wrote for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society's Systems, Man and Cybernetics workshop.

The workshop was held in June at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

— Frank Tiboni

From horseback, soldiers call for bombs

John Luddy, an adjunct fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank, said no better illustration of network-centric warfare's potential exists than the image of an Army Special Forces soldier on horseback in Afghanistan sending location data via satellite from his notebook computer to an Air Force B-52 bomber crew. In less than 20 minutes, the crew could drop precision-guided bombs on Taliban troops.

Luddy describes network-centric warfare as "getting the right information faster to the right forces so they can take the right action faster against the right objective." Afghanistan and Iraq show that the new warfighting strategy works, he said.

In "The Challenge and Promise of Network-Centric Warfare," a report published by the institute in February, Luddy writes that "albeit it against markedly inferior military forces, American forces were able to integrate information and communications systems and procedures to accomplish more with less, and faster, than would have been possible even a decade ago."

— Frank Tiboni

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