Cyber vulnerabilities in the private sector pose a serious threat to national security, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
While military cyber defenses are formidable, civilian infrastructure and businesses often are targeted first and "present a significant vulnerability to our nation," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in an interview earlier this week in Rome, at the start of a two-nation European tour focused on threats to U.S. and European security.
Because of that, he said, the United States faces a "level playing field" against cyber threats.
"As the senior military officer of the most powerful military on the planet, I like to have the playing field tilted to my advantage,” he said. “I'd like the enemy to play uphill and us to play downhill." He ranks cybersecurity among his highest priorities, he added.
Legislation Needed for Information Sharing
Cyber legislation is needed to protect the nation and to allow information sharing between the government and the private sector while safeguarding civil liberties, he said. President Barack Obama has made cybersecurity a top agenda item and pressed for new cyber legislation in last night's State of the Union address.
"We haven't done enough -- that's just not internal to the military,” Dempsey said. “We haven’t done enough as a nation."
The U.S. military depends on commercial networks, so the strongest military cyber defense still could be threatened by a weak link elsewhere, Dempsey said. "We have authorities and capabilities that allow us to do a pretty good job of defending ourselves," he added. "But the vulnerability of the rest of America is a vulnerability of ours, and that's what we have to reconcile."
More than 20 countries now have military units dedicated to employing cyber in war, the chairman noted. He said he is worried adversaries will seek to exploit vulnerabilities in civilian critical infrastructure, viewing that as a "softer" target than the military itself.
Cyberattacks Are Becoming a Part of Conflict
Disruptive and destructive cyberattacks are becoming a part of conflict between states, within states and among nonstate actors, the general said.
"From the day I became chairman, I realized that on my term, cyber would become both a greater threat to our national interests, but also a more important component of military capability," he said.
While the U.S. dominates -- albeit with some constraints, whether air, space, land or sea -- the cyber domain is much different, Dempsey said, repeating that he doesn’t like that there are "actors out there who can compete with us on literally a level playing field."
The chairman noted the military two years ago stood up the U.S. Cyber Command, which committed resources and migrated capabilities to the combatant commander level.
Adversaries of the United States constantly seek to infiltrate networks and degrade capabilities, disrupt operations, or steal information, the chairman noted. "In cyber, we have competitors, and we have competitors who maybe aren’t as constrained by legal systems and freedoms as we are," he said. "It's going to be challenging to navigate this race."