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Experts: Nukes an option for computer attack

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The United States should be prepared to use every military option, including nuclear retaliation, in response to a huge computer attack, an independent Department of Defense task force said.

But the nation must determine whether its nuclear arsenal can withstand computer hackers, the Defense Science Board warns in a newly declassified report obtained by the Tribune-Review. In a full-scale cyber war, the board's experts say, the United States' weapons could be disabled or turned against its troops.

“It would have to be extreme,” Paul Kaminski, chair of the Science Board and a member of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, said about the kind of attack that might trigger a nuclear response. “It would have to be the kind of attack that we would judge would be threatening our survival.”

The United States must assume that computer attacks will be part of conflicts, said the report from the task force made up of civilian experts with government advisers. Yet, the report said the country cannot be confident that its military's computer systems would still work under attack from a sophisticated adversary nation with a full range of military and intelligence options.

The report Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat” presents a bleak assessment of the Defense Department's ability to withstand basic attacks from simulation “red teams” used to test the system.

The report points out that “much work remains” despite efforts to secure networks and protect the nation from computer attacks, said Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Defense Department spokesman. Military leaders have reviewed the report and believe it will serve as a “positive catalyst,” he added.

“We recognize the serious nature of these threats and are urgently working to improve our capabilities to defend the nation, deter adversaries — and if called upon — take decisive action in all domains, to include cyberspace,” Pickart told the Trib.

All options should be on the table, but threatening a nuclear response might go too far, said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founding chief technology officer of CrowdStrike, a security technology company in Irvine, Calif.

“I cannot, for the life of me,” he said, “imagine a scenario in which a realistic cyber attack could do that.”

Briefed about “widespread intrusions” and the theft of technical information, task force members said they believe adversaries are planning high-end attacks. “The benefits to an attacker using cyber exploits are potentially spectacular,” the task force warns.

Most attackers have limited capabilities, but a sophisticated nation state could “impose gradual wide-scale loss of life and control of the country” by attacking critical infrastructure such as power, water and financial systems.

In a full-scale fight with a “peer adversary” such as China or Russia, attackers could begin hacks to prevent weapons from firing or to cause confusion in supply lines.

Impacts on civilian targets could be “even greater,” making police and medical responders “barely functional” at first and dysfunctional over the long term. Physical destruction to manufacturing plants or utilities could take months, if not years, to repair, the report said.

Some steps to increase computer defenses could be done “relatively inexpensively,” said Brian Hughes, the Science Board's executive director.

The report suggests the military segregate some weapons — such as 20 bombers out of a fleet of hundreds — from integrated computer networks. The planes would lose some capability but remain operational if a computer attack grounded the rest of the fleet.

Other proposals include adding to the number of “cyber warriors,” which Defense plans to do, and spending more time playing war games with launching and defending computer attacks. The military must be ready to launch potentially hundreds of simultaneous, synchronized computer attacks even as it defends against them.

“People are starting to understand that if the bad guys break into their software, they can have more access to things than they wanted them to,” said Albert Whale, a Pittsburgh-based consultant for Cigital Federal, which works with the Air Force and others to identify and fix software vulnerabilities.

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or

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