US cyber warfare, budget cuts and shortage of cyber experts

Pierluigi Paganini June 15, 2012

The Flame case has raised the question on the real cyber warfare capabilities of every country, we have spoken of the strong commitment of Indian and German government, praising the US capabilities for the involvement in operations such as the “Olympic Games” project.

But what are the real cyber capabilities of the United States?

No doubt the U.S. are among the main actors of an increasingly crowded cyberspace, they have  indisputable military capabilities in the field, however, the country is still too vulnerable to potential cyber attacks.

Despite the increase engagement in cyber warfare US must faces with a crisis which has inevitable effects on the budget allocated to the defense. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta often has expressed very concern about the possibility of a major cyber attack against the country and its critical infrastructures.

The government is planning the biggest cuts to defense budget of the last decade, around $450 billion over a period of ten years. Persistent rumors speak of a further cut of $500 billion due an automatic mechanism of protection known as sequestration after members of Congress failed to reach an agreement to reduce the nation’s deficit.

The cuts represent a serious problem for the development of US capabilities in a delicate historical period, the principal enemies of US such as Iran, China and also Russia are massive investing trying to acquire a strategic advantage under this perspective.

Secretary Panetta warned on the possible risks deriving from the cuts, on the argument he said:

“It would guarantee that we hollow out our force and inflict severe damage on our national defense. I think you all recognize that sequester would be entirely unacceptable and I really urge both sides to work together to try to find the kind of comprehensive solution that would de-trigger sequester and try to do this way ahead of this potential disaster that we confront,”

“I’m very concerned that the potential in cyber to be able to cripple our power grid, to be able to cripple our government systems, to be able to cripple our  financial systems would virtually paralyze this country and as far as I’m concerned that represents the potential for another Pearl Harbor  as far as the kind of attack that we could be the target of using cyber,”

The scenario hypothesized by Panetta is realistic and dramatic, a cyber attack against an US critical system could represent a disaster. The possible source of attacks could be foreign government but also cybercriminals or cyber terrorists.

Every day thousands of attacks hit US networks and the trend show an increasing frequency, cyber espionage is the most insidious cyber threat, to tackle this offensive are necessary continuous and huge investments in cyber defense capabilities.

Another question raised by the main military authorities is related to the enormous expenses for the campaigns abroad of American troops, first of all in Afghanistan, the cost of sending supplies into Afghanistan through alternate routes is about $100 million a month. If the economic situation is complex and dangerous, other clouds are gathering on U.S. cyber warfare capabilities.

Leading cyber experts have alerted US government on the shortage of talented computer security specialists to hire in the cyber security circuit.

The research of skilled experts is one of the first goals of US administration that have promoted several projects such as Plan X.

According to experts, lacking several tens of thousands of experts to allocate in activities related to cyber defense and cyber offense. Of course the shortage could represent a desiderable opportunity of business for private companies, for example U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp has recently promoted the first undergraduate honors program in cyber security with the intent to be highly specialized in cyber warfare.

The main government agencies are also trying to hire consultants form private industry, but in same cases security firms have refused to send their most talented cyber experts to avoid of losing them.

According many experts, due this reason, usually in governments project are involved a “second level” of experts from private businesses or they locking down the main resources with special agreements.

According unofficial sources, governments are also searching for experts in the cyber underground and attempting the main hacker events all over the world.

Let me conclude with a declaration of Eugene Kaspersky ,CEO of Kaspersky Lab, on the actual cyber situation:

Now we’re living in the era of cyber weapons. The world is different. Not just cyber hooligans, vandals. Not just criminals. But governments are in the game and I’m afraid for the worst, I’m still expecting, cyber terrorism.”

The involvement of governments is strong and the problems alerted on US cyber defense represent serious concerns, the cyberspace could become soon the reign of anarchy and the impact on real world could be dramatic.

Pierluigi Paganini

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