“Wicker: Our warriors must be trained to fight on an invisible battlefront”

January 27, 2011

Recent press reports have brought hopeful news that Iran’s nuclear weapons program may have suffered a major setback. This development also highlights the critical importance of cyber warfare, a relatively new but growing aspect of our national defense strategy in which Mississippi is playing a major role. 

Last weekend, several news outlets reported that a sophisticated computer worm breached a high-security Iranian uranium-enrichment facility, critical to the regime’s effort to produce a nuclear weapon. The worm, known as Stuxnet, forced centrifuges that produce nuclear-grade material to spin out of control, destroying the sensitive machines while sending a normal operating signal to controllers. This attack disrupted Iran’s work to develop nuclear capability, potentially setting that country back years in its quest.

While the attack on Iran’s nuclear weapon system increases security in most Western democracies, preventing a similarly sophisticated assault on our country requires an advanced defense. The Internet created a global communications link that has led to unprecedented gains in information sharing, improving our way of life and revolutionizing the way we communicate. Unfortunately, this growth comes with risks. As the United States becomes more reliant on this interconnected technology, we become increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Mississippi currently stands in the forefront of America’s efforts to defend our strategic interests in the digital age by training military and civilian leaders to prevent and repel Internet-based attacks. To safeguard America’s computer systems, the nation’s newest cyber warriors are training right here in Mississippi at Keesler Air Force Base.

Throughout the United States, millions of electronic systems perform essential tasks -- from bank transactions to running power grids and airline navigation, each using the Internet. These openings leave the country susceptible to cyber terrorism. In 2008, a cyber attack against U.S. Department of Defense computers showed that adversaries were willing to wage war in the virtual domain.

In response to the 2008 attacks, the Pentagon set up the U.S. Cyber Command to defend America’s electronic networks, and Keesler was chosen to be the Air Force’s primary training center. The Cyber Training School’s first class convened in June of last year with a mission to equip military and civilian leaders with the tools necessary for computer network defense. Instructors train Air Force officers, enlisted members, and civilian specialists to operate and actively defend a wide variety of sensitive electronic systems. The Air Force dedicated over $11 million to this critical training program. A significant portion of those funds were invested in upgrading Keesler facilities, equipment, simulators, and networks.

This effort is the most radical curriculum change at Keesler in years. Students begin with Cyber 101 and progress to learn countermeasures to thwart the latest advancements in systems warfare. To hone their skills, students guard simulated cyberspace installations and lead attacks against their fellow students. These exercises force students to think like the aggressors they will be asked to defeat. By next year, 385 students will have graduated from the program, ready to serve and put their training to use.

Mississippi’s universities are also conducting research to assist in cyber defense. Mississippi State University receives funding from the Department of Defense and other intelligence agencies to develop the capability to investigate and report weaknesses in various cyber applications. Work at the University of Southern Mississippi is focused on training future leaders in this cutting-edge security.

To bolster their efforts, Congress has an opportunity to work actively and in a bipartisan way to safeguard our national security. Staying ahead of developing threats requires a strategic framework and cooperation at all levels of government. Public-private partnerships to ensure a robust defense are also a critical component.

Two years ago, President Obama rightly declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset.” However, just last year coordinated attacks on Visa and Mastercard temporarily shut down service for their cardholders, following their refusal to process donations for a Web site publishing classified and sensitive documents.

These incidents serve as a reminder that our nation’s adver-saries have many weapons at their disposal, including manipulation of the Internet. As we prepare to defend against such threats, Missis-sippians can be proud of our state’s crucial role in training America’s next generation of cyber warriors.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.