Reality Check: Effects of a Digital Meltdown

May 12, 2010
By Maryann Lawlor
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Led by Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.), AFCEA International's former president and CEO, the final panel on Wednesday took on one of the toughest topics yet: fighting through a digital meltdown. But panelists were stand-offish about tackling this topic head on. Instead, they referred to how well prepared the U.S. military is to defend against attacks, how equally dependent adversaries are on technology as well and how warfighters on the tactical edge already are operating without dependable network connectivity. Robert Carey, DON CIO, questioned whether the entire network could be taken down. Today, the military is far better equipped than it ever has been in this arena, he stated. "This focus and talent helps us fight this war and handle effects that could occur. We have now created the cadre to fight this that didn't exist two years ago, but it does exist now," Carey said. The network also is more resilient than it ever has been, so while the effects of a cyberattack would be significant to those affected, in the world scope, they would be small, he added. The military must get its arms around what this meltdown is in both scale and scope. Comparing it to the ability to steal a car that hosts every security device available simply by using a tow truck, Carey emphasized that if an adversary wants to break into a system, a break-in will occur. Consequently, the focus should be is on risk management. Col. Michael J. Jones. USA, of the Army CIO/G-6 office, proposed that the best way to fight through a digital meltdown is to avoid it in the first place. This requires a change in culture, he said, that includes determining who is responsible for each system, the size of the systems and what capabilities they offer. "By doing those things, when 'Murphy' shows up, we will be much better prepared to deal with the situation if people are being held accountable when a breach occurs," Col. Jones stated. Maj. Gen. Kevin Kennedy, USAF, director for capability development at JFCOM, stated that the effect of a digital meltdown is the tipping point for training. Commanders will continue to operate even without network connectivity; however, a meltdown would impact decision cycles and a commander's decisions will be narrower. Maj. Gen. Michael Jones, USA, CENTCOM J-3, admitted that his command's dependence on cyberspace has increased markedly over the past few years, and that any advantage gained always creates vulnerabilities. That said, he invited audience members to consider the fact that adversaries have become just as dependent on cyberspace as coalition partners, so enemies would suffer from a meltdown, too. Despite this fact, Gen. Jones advocated for continuing to train troops to operate in a paper-based world. Learning the manual processes method will continue to be important for some time to come, the general said, "longer than I'll be around."

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