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Senior General Says US Needs to Move Faster on Cyber Defense

In the wake of the cyber attack on the Internet company Google and more than a dozen other firms in December, the top officer responsible for the security of U.S. military computer systems says the United States needs to do more to stay ahead of those who could use malicious software to disable key American military and civilian capabilities.

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force General Kevin Chiltonsays the United States should expect an attack on what he calls "critical infrastructure," such as the computer systems that are central to the U.S. financial industry and electric power grid."I think we need to move faster, frankly, as a nation. And I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. I'm just saying I think as a nation we need to move faster. It's a risk that we want to stay ahead of and not play catch-up on," he said.

Google says the attack on its network in December originated in China, and focused on Chinese email accounts on its servers, particularly those owned by political dissidents. General Chilton's Strategic Command is not responsible for defending American networks in the dot-com domain, like Google, but he says when there are such attacks he asks his staff to ensure military networks do not have the same vulnerabilities.

"I'm asking the same questions. So, what happened? How did they get in? What was the virus? What was the attack vector? How can we make sure we are not susceptible to that same sort of attack?," he said.

In addition to defensive measures, General Chilton says U.S. officials need to think a lot more about how to deter cyber attacks. Deterrence involves making it clear to an adversary that the consequences of an attack would out-weigh its advantages. The general says the deterrent will differ for different potential attackers.

"You worry about North Korea doing bad things in the cyber domain, as well as you might worry about China potentially doing it, or some other country. So, you have to consider who it is you're trying to deter, and what it is they fear and value," he said.

General Chilton says that is a complicated calculation, and could involve military action, but also potentially cyber-counterattacks, economic retaliation and diplomatic moves.

The U.S. military has been working for years to consolidate its cyber defenses under a new command that would answer to General Chilton, but the effort has been delayed by a series of bureaucratic and political concerns.