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Cybersecurity specialists for combat teams envisioned by Pentagon

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, left,

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, left, testifies with Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology Patrick Gallagher during a hearing on Cybersecurity Partnership Between the Private Sector and Our Government on Capitol Hill in Washington. (March 7, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

U.S. military commanders soon will be able to summon teams of cybersecurity specialists to carry out defensive and offensive computer operations, according to a Defense Department official.

The teams will focus on missions such as protecting vital computer networks from attacks, supporting combat operations and keeping the Pentagon's information-technology systems secure, Army General Keith Alexander, the U.S. Cyber Command chief, told the Senate Armed Service Committee Tuesday in prepared testimony.

"The teams are analogous to battalions in the Army and Marine Corps -- or squadrons in the Navy and Air Force," said Alexander, who also leads the National Security Agency. "In short, they will soon be capable of operating on their own, with a range of operational and intelligence skill sets, as well as a mix of military and civilian personnel." Alexander's remarks cast more light on a Pentagon plan announced in 2010 to expand its cyber capabilities and make such computer-based work an operational domain similar to that of air, land and sea. The teams described Tuesday are part of "normalizing cyber operations," the general said.

"We have no choice but to normalize cyberspace operations within the U.S. military and make them part of the capability set of our senior policymakers and commanders," Alexander said. "When we have built this high-quality, certified, and standardized force, we will be able to present cyber forces with known capability sets to our combatant commanders." Shielding Banks The operations would include shielding banks and power grids from attacks when ordered by the president to do so, and assisting with military operations to disable the computer networks of adversaries abroad, Alexander said.

Cyber attacks against the U.S. sponsored by other governments "continue to top our list of concerns," Alexander said. The Cyber Command believes al-Qaeda or other terrorists "have the intent to harm the United States via cyber means," although their capability hasn't matched their intentions, according to Alexander.

President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, said Monday that cyber attacks "emanating from China on an unprecedented scale" and aimed at U.S. companies have become a point of contention with the Chinese government.

China needs to recognize the scope of the hacking issue, take steps to halt computer espionage and start a "constructive dialogue" with the U.S. on standards for conduct in cyberspace, Donilon said in a speech in New York.

In his prepared testimony, Alexander said that activist hackers, who have a cause or a grievance that prompts them to target U.S. government networks, remain less of a threat than previously believed.

"Our vulnerabilities to this sort of disruption remain, but 2012 saw fewer such incidents than 2011," he said.

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