Cadets train to defend against cyber attack

Thursday, April 17th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) _ The cyberattacks hit after sunup.

A stream of hostile data packets flooded a Web server. Cadets in camouflage fatigues moved double-time shouting about mail servers and passwords.

Cadet Dan Jeffers calmly tracked the action on his computer screen, wondering about the enemy's next move.

``I'm sure they're just surfing around, looking for something right now,'' said Jeffers, examining long gray lines of scrolling script.

The Cyber Defense Exercise conducted this week among the nation's service academies is a new kind of drill to prepare a new kind of military. The flanking maneuver Jeffers worried about didn't come from a tank column. It stemmed from hackers ramming his computer defenses.

``The battle may be raging, but it's happening in cyberspace,'' said Lt. Col. Daniel Ragsdale of the U.S. Military Academy here.

The third annual drill, which ran Monday through Thursday, included computer specialists from the three major military academies as well as institutions like the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

At West Point, a ``blue team'' of a few dozen cadets in a camouflage-draped computer lab faced off against a ``red team'' of hackers from the National Security Agency, the federal intelligence agency that specializes in electronic intelligence gathering and cryptography.

Red team's mission was to bore through each academy's Internet firewall and probe for weaknesses that could give them access to secure data.

The exercise fits in the military's recent emphasis on ``network-centric warfare'' _ linking commanders, soldiers, weapons and intelligence into an overarching computer grid. Such real-time battlefield information is supposed to cut through the confusion that leads to the oft-cited ``fog of war.''

Gone are the days when soldiers took pride in their lack of technological expertise, said Ragsdale, who directs West Point's Information and Technology Operations Center.

``Somehow, you were more of a soldier if you were a technophobe,'' Ragsdale said. ``You know, `Give me a grease pencil and a piece of acetate, and I'll give you a battle plan.'''

These days, cyberattacks _ and defense _ are an important part of the Pentagon's arsenal.

``We're doing network attacks, we are hacking into e-mail systems of adversaries,'' said Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank. Goure noted reports of U.S. intelligence operatives e-mailing Iraqi generals during the war.

Modern information warfare involves not just attempts to disable enemy networks with cyberattacks but also to penetrate them and plant bogus information.

The Pentagon is thus going to lengths to protect its own systems, relying on tools ranging from encryption to special programs that hunt for computer worms, Goure said.

The cyberexercise began in 2001. The academy that musters the best defenses gets a trophy from the NSA.