An army of tech-savvy warriors has been fighting its battles in cyberspace

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 3:58 PM

They were Air Force fighter pilots, Army rangers and Marine tank commanders. There was even a Navy fighter jet radar officer who had been taken prisoner during the Persian Gulf War.

Warriors all.

But in 1998 they fought in a different realm - their weapons bits and bytes, their foxholes temperature-controlled computer operations rooms. In the new battleground of cyberspace, they battled shadowy foes whose computer attacks were given names like Moonlight Maze and Titan Rain.

These were the men and women of the Joint Task Force Computer Network Defense, 24 tech-savvy war fighters who were part of the pioneering group tasked with protecting the Pentagon's computer networks - vital for everything from directing troop movements to passing intelligence to issuing commands to fire missiles.

To the surprise and approval of the group's first leaders, the task force has not only endured, it has evolved into what is today the U.S. Cyber Command, arguably the world's most potent computer network fighting force.

The recently launched Cyber Command is much larger, with about 1,000 personnel, and with authority not only to defend, but to attack adversaries. It will leverage the abilities of the National Security Agency to penetrate foreign networks and spy on targets.

But one thing remains constant, the veterans say: In the world of defending military networks, it takes fighters - not merely techies - to do the job.

"It was supposed to be a war fighter unit, not a geek unit," said task force veteran Jason Healey, who had served as an Air Force signals intelligence officer.

A fighter would understand, for instance, if an enemy had penetrated the networks and changed coordinates or target times, said Dusty Rhoads, a retired Air Force colonel and former F-117 pilot who recruited the original task force members. "A techie wouldn't have a clue," he said.

"What was cool about it was they thought like war fighters," said Michele Iversen, an original task force member and the only woman in an operational role.

The roots of JTF-CND, as it was called, lay in a 1997 Joint Staff exercise called Eligible Receiver. In the exercise, a National Security Agency "red team" hacked the classified networks of Pacific Command in Honolulu. The team also proved to exercise referees that it had the capability to penetrate the civilian power grids in Hawaii, though it did not actually do so.

"The bottom line was it really did scare a lot of people and made us aware of the fact that we just weren't well-positioned to defend against that," said retired Gen. John "Soup" Campbell, the task force's first commander.

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