WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US military on Tuesday announced a new "cyber command" designed to wage digital warfare and to bolster defenses against mounting threats to its computer networks.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates formally established the command -- the country's first -- that would operate under US Strategic Command, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
The command will begin operating in October and be fully operational in October 2010, Whitman said.
The move reflects a shift in military strategy with "cyber dominance" now part of US war doctrine and comes amid growing alarm over the perceived threat posed by digital espionage coming from China, Russia and elsewhere.
US officials say China has built up a sophisticated cyber warfare program and that a spate of intrusions in the United States and elsewhere can be traced back to Chinese sources.
The officer widely expected to lead the command is Lieutenant General Keith Alexander, the director of the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA).
Alexander has described cyberspace as the new military frontier that could shape the future of national security, comparing it to sea or air power.
The Defense Department said the command would streamline various cyber efforts across the armed forces and would focus on military networks.
Officials have said the command would likely be located at Fort Meade, Maryland and that the Pentagon would not be taking over security efforts for civilian networks from other government agencies.
The US military relies on 15,000 networks and about seven million computers, with more than 100 foreign intelligence agencies trying to hack into US networks, according to Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn.
"Our defense networks are constantly under attack," Lynn said in a speech last week.
"They are probed thousands of times a day. They are scanned millions of times a day. And the frequency and sophistication of attacks are increasing exponentially," he said.
The threat ranges from teenage hackers to criminal gangs acting as cyber mercenaries to foreign governments, Lynn said.
Lynn cited cyberattacks that shut down Georgia?s government and commercial web sites during Russia's military incursion last year.
Defense officials have said the cyber command would focus on security efforts along with offensive capabilities to ensure "freedom of action in cyberspace" for the United States.
The precise details of US cyber military power remain secret, but it includes technology capable of penetrating and jamming networks, including the classified Suter airborne system, analysts say.
The technology has been reportedly added to unmanned aircraft and allows for users to take over and manipulate enemy sensors.
Reported breaches of the US electricity grid and of networks used by aerospace contractors building the F-35 fighter jet have underlined concerns over cyber security.
Last year, several thousand computers in the Defense Department were infected by malicious software, prompting the military to ban troops and civilian staff from using external memory devices and thumb drives.
In the proposed defense budget for fiscal 2010, the administration has proposed increasing funds for training to triple the number of cyber security experts from 80 to 250 per year.
President Barack Obama has put a top priority on cyber security and announced plans for a national cyber defense coordinator.
A recent White House policy review said that "cybersecurity risks pose some of the most serious economic and national security challenges of the 21st century."
Obama has promised privacy rights would be carefully safeguarded even as the government moves to step up efforts to protect sensitive civilian and military networks.
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