NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Navy and Marine Corps' defenses against cyber attacks are fragile but improving, top officers said Monday, though they remain concerned about the vulnerability of civilian networks amid congressional inaction.
America's "rebalance to the Pacific" accompanies a growing trend in cyber attacks from countries such as China. The Marine Corps has responded by creating its own group of cyber warriors to address an inescapable threat.
Squaring off against this "growth business" threat abroad requires training for every sailor, Marine and civilian, but a gap in the armor may exist at home.
"I'm okay with our [Department of Defense] networks where we stand right now and where we're going," said Navy Adm. William Gortney while speaking at the Sea-Air-Space expo Monday. "But our networks for the rest of the nation, I'm a little more concerned about."
Gortney questioned whether U.S. networks are hardened, protected or have the capacity to be defended, and pointed at Congress' inability to pass comprehensive cyber security legislation. As commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, he oversees preparing all Navy Department forces for assignment to one of the unified commands.
"If you look at the legislation on [Capitol] Hill for the past couple years, our nation is having a hard time coming to grips with how to deal with that," he said. "We are a democracy, but we are conflicted a little bit on how to get where we want to go."
Previous attempts to enact legislation to enforce cyber security failed on Capitol Hill, such as the much discussed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. President Barack Obama issued an executive order designed to strengthen "critical infrastructure," timed to coincide with his most recent State of the Union Address in February. Experts believe that could reinvigorate legislative efforts.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that lawmakers may not act until a catastrophe occurs on the level of the Japanese attack that brought the U.S. into World War II.
"Will it take a cyber Pearl Harbor?" Gortney said. "I would hope not."
A significant portion of combating cyber threats remains determining what those threats actually are and how to defend against them, said Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon.
"We're in the infancy of all of this, trying to understand what the requirements are going to be in terms of the long-term security environment." said Tryon, the deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations. "It's a bit of a work in progress – assembling the aircraft mid-flight."
"It's a pretty fragile system right now," said Gortney. "I think our efforts to protect our networks…are good, but its fragile and we're working very hard to shore that up."