Computer network warfare is an essential military tactic, says Alexander

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Cyber Command head nominee Army Lt. Gen Keith B. Alexander, said counter attack is a legitimate cyber warfare tactic. In written responses to a questionnaire in advance of his April 15 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Alexander said that while cybersecurity is a critical first step in securing computer networks, the military should also be prepared to launch counter cyberattacks, according to a report in the New York Times.

He also alerted Congress that clarification is needed regarding the military's "technical capabilities to conduct operations and the governing laws and policies."

Alexander is currently head of the National Security Agency and will continue to lead that agency after assuming command of the Cyber Command, should the Senate confirm his nomination. The Cyber Command command stood up in June 2009, but the Senate had yet to finalize President Obama's pick for the position--putting the command behind it's intended October 2009 operation start date.

In the questionnaire, Alexander described hypothetical situations in which computer warfare would be a necessary and beneficial military tactic. Cyberwarfare would go beyond infiltrating military command-and-control systems and weapons systems. It may also be used to target civilian institutions and municipal infrastructure, he said.

The suggestion of non-military targets may be controversial. Under traditional combat laws, civilians should be excluded from warfare, even if 20th century wars have made the dividing line between civilian and combatant more fluid. While difficult to conceive, Alexander wrote, an attack against a financial institution could be legitimate if "it was being used solely to support enemy military operations." 

Methods of deterrence and what constitutes a cyberattack are also unclear. "There is no international consensus on a precise definition of a use of force, in or out of cyberspace," he wrote. "There is always potential disagreement among nations concerning what may amount to a threat or use of force."

Already, one military branch is preparing to ramp up it's focus on computer-based combat. On Monday, the Air Force announced it would be training "all new recruits in the basics of cyberwarfare." This June, 16 Air Force officers will begin an advanced course to train for a career in cyber operations. According to a TMCnet report, the Air Force needs to produce about 400 officers with skills in cyber defense every year.  

For more:
- see this article from the New York Times
- see this article from TMCnet
- see this blog post from WashingtonTechnology

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