AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – The U.S. service academies are ramping up their efforts to groom warriors to fight on a new battlefield: cyberspace.
The academies have been training cadets in cyberwar for more than a decade. But the effort has taken on new urgency amid warnings that hostile nations or organizations might be capable of crippling attacks on critical U.S. networks.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, called cyberattack the top threat to national security when he presented the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress in April.
“Threats are more diverse, interconnected and viral than at any time in history,” his report says. “Destruction can be invisible, latent and progressive.”
China-based hackers have long been accused of cyber intrusions, and earlier this year the cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a report with new details allegedly linking a secret Chinese military unit to years of cyberattacks against U.S. companies. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post also reported breaches in their computer systems this year and said they suspected Chinese hackers.
China denies carrying out cyberattacks.
Hackers also compromised The Associated Press’ accounts on Twitter, sending out a false tweet. The AP quickly put out word that the tweet was false.
Once viewed as an obscure and even nerdy pursuit, cyberwar is now seen as one of the hottest fields in warfare.
It’s “a great career field in the future,” said Ryan Zacher, a junior at the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, Colo., who switched from aeronautical engineering to computer science.
Last year, the U.S. Naval Academy began requiring freshmen to take a semester on cybersecurity, and it is adding a second required cyber course for juniors this academic year.
The school in Annapolis, Md., offered a major in cyber operations for the first time last year to the freshman class; 33 midshipmen, or about 3 percent of the class, signed up for it. Another 79 midshipmen major in computer engineering, information technology or computer science.
Since 2004, the Air Force Academy has offered a degree in computer science-cyberwarfare that requires cadets to take courses in cryptology, information warfare and network security in addition to standard computer science. The academy is retooling a freshman course so that more than half its content is about cyberspace, and is looking into adding another cyber course.
Almost every Army cadet at the U.S. Military Academy takes two technology courses related to such topics as computer security and privacy. The school also offers other cyber courses, and a computer security group meets weekly.
Noting that really high-level computer skills are rare, counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke said the military might have to re-examine some of its recruiting standards to attract the most adept cyberwarriors.
“Hackers are the 1 percent, the elite and the creators,” said Clarke, who served as White House cybersecurity adviser during the Clinton administration. “I wouldn’t worry a whole heck of a lot (about whether they) can they run fast or lift weights.”
Cyber’s appeal was enough to get Lt. Jordan Keefer, a 2012 Air Force Academy graduate now pursuing a master’s degree in cyber operations, to put aside his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.
“It’s a challenge, and for people who like a challenge, it’s the only place to be,” Keefer said.
Associated Press writer Michael Hill contributed to this report.