War games focus on virtual enemy

NSA helps test hacking defenses

The New York TimesMay 11, 2009 

— The Army forces were under attack. Communications were down, and the chain of command was broken. Pacing a makeshift bunker -- the entrance of which was camouflaged with netting -- the young man in battle fatigues barked at his comrades: "They are flooding the e-mail server. Block it. I'll take the heat for it."

This is what passes for war games at West Point, at least last month, when a team of cadets spent four days struggling around the clock to establish a computer network and keep it operating while hackers from the National Security Agency in Maryland tried to infiltrate it with methods that an enemy might use.

The competition was a final exam of sorts for a senior elective class. The cadets, who were computer science and information technology majors, competed against teams from the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine as well as the Naval Postgraduate Academy and the Air Force Institute of Technology. Each team was judged on how well it subdued the threats from the NSA.

The cyberwar games at West Point are just one example of a heightened awareness across the military that it must treat the threat of a computer attack as seriously as it does an attack carried out by a bomber or combat brigade. There is hardly a U.S. military unit or headquarters that has not been ordered to analyze the risk of cyberattacks to its mission -- and to train to counter them.

In the desert outside Las Vegas, in a series of inconspicuous trailers, some of the most highly motivated hackers in the United States spend their days and nights probing the military's vast computer networks for weaknesses that can be exploited.

These hackers have access to the latest in attack software. Some of it was developed by cryptologists at the NSA, the nation's largest intelligence agency, where most of the government's talent for breaking and making computer codes resides.

The hackers have an official name -- the 57th Information Aggressor Squadron -- and a real home, Nellis Air Force Base.

The Army last year created its own destination for computer experts, the Network Warfare Battalion, where many of the cadets in the cyberwar games hope to be assigned. But even so, the ranks are small.

The Defense Department today graduates only 80 students a year from its cyberwar schools, causing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to complain that the Pentagon is "desperately short of people who have capabilities in this area in all the services, and we have to address it."

Under current Pentagon budget proposals, the number of students cycled through the schools will be quadrupled in the next two years.

Part of the Pentagon's effort to increase the military's capabilities are the annual cyberwar games played at the nation's military academies, including West Point, where young officers in combat boots and buzz cuts talk megabytes instead of megatons.

These strategies are not just theoretical. Most of these cadets will soon be sent to Afghanistan to carry out such work, Ewing said.

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